The slogan “No platforms for fascists” came from events in the United Kingdom during the 1970s. It was aimed at propagandists and recruiters for violent, indubitably fascist, organizations such as the National Front. This was also a time of protests against the South African regime’s odious Apartheid policy, and student unions in the United Kingdom frequently extended no-platforming to individuals and organizations with ties to South Africa. Whether or not particular acts of no-platforming were always justified, they had a narrow and specific rationale.
Fast-forward four decades. The tactic of no-platforming is now aimed at a vastly wider range of speakers. For example, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer—a radical left-wing thinker by most people’s standards—has had numerous encounters with no-platforming. This includes his disinvitation from the Cologne Philosophy Festival in 2015. Moreover, he’s far from the only individual with liberal or left-wing credentials to have been subjected to no-platforming campaigns instigated by fellow liberals or leftists. [Peter Singer was a Free Inquiry columnist until 2010. – Eds.]
This raises the question of when, if ever, no-platforming is a legitimate political tactic in a democratic society. When is it okay to pressure, or force, event organizers to disinvite a particular speaker? Is there a principled line we can draw, or have we reached a stage in history where anything goes?
If we’re going to be principled about the issue, whatever principle we adopt had better be one that can be applied objectively to speakers we agree with, like, or support, as well as to speakers we disagree with, dislike, or oppose. Otherwise, we’re rigging the game in our own favor. One principled line might rule out speakers who incite immediate violence. Another might also rule out dehumanizing propaganda, such as portraying opponents or despised social groups as rats, snakes, and other forms of vermin.
Anyone from the freethought tradition should tread especially carefully here; we know that throughout history, and in many parts of today’s world, lines very unfavorable to us have been drawn as to what speech is socially tolerable. John Locke, one of the greatest proponents of religious toleration of early European modernity, thought it was fine for the state to persecute anyone who denied the existence of God and divine judgment in an afterlife. According to Locke (and indeed, many otherwise-enlightened thinkers of the time), these denials were socially dangerous and beyond the pale of tolerance. Two hundred years later, in Victorian England, this was still a live issue. It is less so today, at least in Western democracies, but readers of Free Inquiry will not need to be reminded of the heated, often very personal, attacks on “New Atheist” authors over the past ten to fifteen years.
It is clear enough that many entrenched participants in the mainstream media wish that Richard Dawkins, among others, would shut up and stop rocking the social boat, as they see it, with forthright criticisms of religion. Not much social change would need to occur for publicly outspoken atheists to find themselves and their ideas being pushed out of civil society.
I’m reminded of all this by the current wave of outrage, as I write, over interviews with the right-wing populist icon, and sometime strategist for Donald Trump, Steve Bannon. In early September 2018, The New Yorker cancelled an interview with Bannon that was planned for its festival in the first week of October. About the same time, ABC Television in Australia aired an interview with him conducted by Sarah Ferguson, a respected political reporter. Ferguson and ABC received an intensely vitriolic backlash for interviewing Bannon at all, not for anything untoward about the way the interview was conducted. In an op-ed published in The Guardian on September 13, Nesrine Malik claimed that Bannon should not be interviewed and that his ideas should not be exposed, or tested, but simply “fought.”
Bannon has access to powerful people and to plenty of platforms more sympathetic to his viewpoint than, say, The New Yorker, so there’s no prospect of silencing him entirely. Still, there remains a matter of principle. Once more: When is it democratically legitimate to try to shut down—as opposed to criticize, expose, refute, test, or even demonstrate against—a speaker?
In Bannon’s case, I expect that almost anyone writing for, or reading, Free Inquiry would regard him as an opponent or worse. His views include marked theocratic, nationalist, authoritarian, and patriarchal elements, so much so that I once referred to them in a blog post as bordering on a kind of Christo-fascism. But even on that occasion, I used phrases such as “a kind of” and “bordering on.” We need to think with care about what he is actually saying before we identify it as speech that should not just be exposed, tested, and the like but whenever possible, outright suppressed.
When you look at Bannon’s ideas, they’re not pretty. Among other things, he perceives Judeo-Christian civilization as locked in a global struggle against Islam and atheism. From his perspective, it seems that Europe (including post-colonial Western nations such as the United States) is still fighting the equivalent of Umayyad and Ottoman invaders. Bannon seems opposed to the liberation of women. He favors what he describes as an economic war with China.
None of this is supportable, but after some research and reflection I see Bannon as more a throwback to the medieval Catholic Church than to the Third Reich. He clearly enough rejects Nazism and discusses it as a defeated enemy of Judeo-Christian civilization, while mischaracterizing it as having something to do with atheism.
Bannon is a speaker who can sound authoritative and intelligent while spouting rather dangerous nonsense. But it’s not obvious that his interviews and public speeches meet any principled and plausible criterion of what speech should be socially suppressed. He does not, for example, incite his audiences to immediate acts of violence. So, how should we respond? Make up your own mind, but our situation is desperate indeed if we can’t resist views like these with evidence and reason.