The Oxford Union has recently posted videos of a debate held with the motion – This House Believes Popular Support is Enough to Justify a Platform. I find it depressing that such a motion is even regarded as worthy of debate in a prestigious seat of learning. Unpopular support is enough to justify a platform: no support is enough to justify a platform. Stick a box at Speakers’ Corner or any appropriate place, climb on it, start speaking and you have a platform – a justified platform. If no one listens that’s your problem. If people dislike or disapprove what you say they walk away and leave you lecturing the pigeons. There’s nothing particularly sophisticated about the concept: it’s a quaint little custom called Free Speech.
At random I’ve picked a speech in this debate. Aaron Porter is speaking in opposition.
Porter speaks well. If you don’t know who he is and have not clicked the link on his name let me tell you that he used to be President of the National Union of Students in the United Kingdom. Doing a fair amount of speaking would obviously come with that territory, so you might expect him to be good – though this blog has shown that it does not necessarily follow.
Right at the beginning he gives us ethos. Without directly doing so he waves his NUS credentials at us, harvesting some applause in the process. I can’t tell you how much, because an unsubtle editing point reveals that it was cut.
He lays out his stall. His opposition is in the lack of qualification in the motion. So within seconds he reveals himself as a ‘butter’. He classifies himself one of those who believe in free speech, but… There’s a very old saying that everything before “but” is bullshit, and this is no exception. Butters do not believe in free speech. Nevertheless he is free to speak so let us listen on.
He uses butter words like “safe”, “comfortable”, “trusted”.
Speech is not free unless it can be uncomfortable and unsafe. And as for being trusted – well – trusted by whom? And how do they know till they hear it? And why should anyone give a toss what a self-regarding little boy chooses to trust?
Since he is picking at the actual wording of the motion, so shall I. He seems to assume that the provision of a platform is implicit in the motion – but he’s wrong. The wording of the motion speaks of ‘a’ platform, not this platform nor any specific platform. Of course a Society like the Oxford Union, or any private club, is entitled to foster its blinkered prejudice and willful ignorance by denying its platform to anyone they please, but that’s none of the motion’s concern. The motion’s concern is in the denying of others the opportunity to say or hear what they choose. When people arrogate the right to hold sway over someone else’s platform you have something ugly. How do they justify that arrogance? Listen further.
There is an even nastier undertone to come. He makes the distinction between a ‘learned’ gathering like this and others that are less so and therefore less equipped to cope with unsafe, uncomfortable or untrustworthy content. He has yet to grow out of the fallacy that less educated means less intelligent. (These days so much of education seems to consist of idea-sapping indoctrination that I could entertain the possibility of the reverse being the case.)
At any rate that is the basis on which every authoritarian, dictatorial regime is built. “I am cleverer and more virtuous than the plebs, so I will decide what they will hear, read, see, believe, think, do.” It is a self-serving philosophy that is misanthropic and malevolent. It is a philosophy that invents cretinous concepts like ‘hate speech’. It is a philosophy that culminates in a gunman breaking into a conference in Copenhagen, spraying bullets around, and killing people.
Nevertheless I’ll defend his right to smear his stinking butter on a platform.