Monday, February 15, 2016

Now the anti-free speech left turns on Peter Tatchell

Many years ago I had lunch at a Conservative meeting with Bob Hughes MP who had been Conservative candidate in the Bermondsey by-election and was subsequently elected MP for a different constituency. I was struck by the fact that he expressed sympathy for Peter Tatchell, the Labour candidate in that by-election, over how Tatchell had been demonised. I subsequently came to the conclusion that Bob was right.

I disagree with Peter Tatchell on many, many things but it has long been my impression that he is a man of enormous courage and integrity, that some of the attacks on him have been extremely unfair, that these have come from people across the political spectrum, and far more often by those on the "left" who you would expect to agree with him than by the right.

Tatchell has now been accused of being a "racist" and "transphobe" by an official of the National Union of Students, Fran Cowling, an NUS officer with responsibility for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. Cowling wrote to the organiser of a student debate in Canterbury this evening explaining that she would not participate in the event if Tatchell were present. She argued that his signature on a letter to the Observer last year about moves to prevent Germaine Greer and others from speaking on campuses because their views were deemed outrageous, supposedly revealed him as a "racist and a transphobe."

Why is it so hard for so many people to understand that the fact that you don't want to ban someone from speaking does not mean that you agree with them? Why cannot they get into their heads that those of us who are genuinely committed to democracy take as one of our first principle the saying usually attributed to Voltaire,

And it is not just the present generation of students among whom understanding of this principle is lacking, many of my contemporaries were just as bad thirty years ago.

There has been some debate about whether the action of Fran Cowling is an example of the infamous "No Platform" policy: whether you call it that or not, it is certainly part of the "No Platform" mindset.

Telling the organisers of an event that you will boycott it unless they cancel the invite to another speaker is, in practice, almost certain to be perceived, including by the organisers of the event, as an attempt to put pressure on them to withdraw the invitation to that speaker.

If the organisers do so perceive it then, even if this was not intended and whether or not they comply, it IS in practice an attempt to restrict the freedom of speech of the person so targeted.

It was the case when I was a student thirty years ago that the "No Platform" mindset led to ridiculous actions like what was then called Sunderland Poly banning their Jewish society in the name of anti-racism (because they also had policy that "Zionism = racism"). It continues to do so today.

Even those restrictions on free speech which I personally support - laws against incitement to violence or criminal activity and a libel law as redress for people who are lied about - have demonstrated the potential to be dangerous to democracy. When the state passes laws beyond that we get outrageous decisions like the arrest of protestors for simply reading out the names of Iraq war casualties beside the Cenotaph or those which Section 5 used to cause - for things like going "woof" at a dog in the presence of a policeman or displaying verses from the bible in a shop window.

And whenever individuals or student unions try to impose restrictions on free speech beyond which go beyond those imposed by the law it never seems to stop where they think it will - people go further and further until you get a ridiculous action like the banning of Sunderland Jewish society, the attempt to stop Maryam Namazie speaking at Warwick, or Fran Cowling's idiotic refusal to debate with Peter Tatchell.

This kind of insanity will continue until the "No Platform" policy is consigned to the dustbin as it should have been thirty years ago.

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