NUS's 'No Platform' policy doesn't hurt free speech
Trigger warning: sexual violence
A motion to ban the SWP from campus recently failed at a Sussex Students’ Union Emergency General Meeting. The motion arose from the way in which the SWP were accused of treating allegations of rape and sexual assault within the party, and reflects the No Platform policy created at NUS. The NUS policy stopped NUS officers from sharing a stage with George Galloway and Julie Bindel following accusations of being a rape apologist and transphobic, respectively. What is the reasoning behind a No Platform policy which precludes a representative organisation from hosting specific speakers?
The policies arose from banning fascist and racist speakers from campuses, who often brought violence with them, either in terms of their viewers or in terms of increasing intolerance leading to attacks. As a membership organisation, with policies voted on by its members, the Students’ Unions acted to safeguard the wellbeing of the students. The issue is that the policy is divorced from the newer requirement for a risk assessment, which would likely preclude a visit, and the policy may therefore be implemented where there is no immediate risk of violence.
As such the argument against a No Platform policy is often themed around the right to free speech – this argument is spurious. The Students’ Union policy could not preclude individuals inviting the SWP to speak at another venue in Brighton, for example. If the policy vote is truly democratic, then the policy is the collective equivalent of deciding not to invite a rapist into your home to tell you why they’re morally right to rape: nobody would suggest that is against free speech.
The key issue is understanding violence in terms of oppression. Society oppressed specific groups in indirect ways: sexual violence and rape is sanctioned by society informing men and women of defined gender and sexual roles, even for reasons as base or thoughtless as “sex sells”. Repeating the myth that consent to sex can be achieved while unconscious, for example, reinforces this oppression.
It is emotional violence against individuals to tell them that they consented to be raped or assaulted, and this may be the case for a surprising number of students, largely women. This leads to the further issue of that to combat the hegemony of sexism and patriarchy it is essential to engage with individuals, illustrate their behaviour and get them to change it. Moreover, we need men to be fighting for an egalitarian society that treats women and other minorities fairly.
One issue with a lot of our focus on law and discrimination rather than fighting oppression it allows us to label people who act sexist as ‘other’. The recent video of a woman being catcalled on New York streets reinforced this when it edited out, if accidentally, all of the white men: why would a white man be convinced he indirectly perpetrated sexism by that video, even if he was a white man in a business that systematically failed to promote women? The other core reason bar student welfare and safety, though, that fascists were not invited to speak was deeper.
Extremism in behaviour can be tackled through law, and extremism isn’t tackled through formal debate. Positive pressure in society and good education is where the conversation needs to happen – before extremism develops. This is why I would be against inviting the SWP onto our campus; it’s more important to be having a conversation amongst ourselves, with our own student population, controlled and with students able to provide a safe space and positive leadership in conversation.
This would mean that our student population can educate itself from exemplars of behaviour as to what is acceptable and right, and ultimately achievable, in society. Rather than heckling people who can’t see they perpetrate the problems, we should spend our time and effort on bettering ourselves.