Some people genuinely seem to believe that no platforming and censorship are the same thing. It comes up every now and then, this annoying argument, like a turd that just won’t flush. And so I write this post, in an attempt to break it up with a butter knife before flushing again.
Let’s start by discussing what censorship is. Censorship is something that comes from the top down: it’s done by the government or the media, those with the power to control who speaks in the public domain. The aim of censorship is to quash dissent, to silence voices speaking out against their aims, and to maintain the status quo. Censorship can only be enacted by those who are capable of doing so: those who have the means of blocking webpages, redacting documents, editing what gets published, and so forth. Censorship is an expression of power.
Let’s compare this to no platforming. No-platforming, in contrast, is bottom up. Those who organise events can democratically and transparently decide who to invite, and who not to. Likewise, people can suggest to organisers that perhaps it is inappropriate to invite a certain person to speak, and democratically and transparently apply pressure to disinvite people. The aim of no platforming is to avoid giving someone who is known to be an active contributor to oppressive power structures any further airing, and to maintain a safer space. It’s a refusal of complicity in oppression. No platforming is enacted by ordinary people: trade unions, pressure groups, activists, and just the regular everyday sibling on the street. It’s a tool we can use because, unlike the government and the media, we have no direct control over public discourse: all we can do is choose who to listen to. It’s important to note that this is an aspect of free speech often overlooked: the power to not listen, and the power to challenge. No platforming is an expression of free speech and democracy.
Some don’t see it that way, and it’s no coincidence that these people tend to be the sorts to get themselves no platformed. It’s no secret that fascists hate being no platformed, and indeed it’s about the only time they care about free speech, and no surprise that people like Nick Griffin will play the victim and cry censorship when venues refuse to host his vile parade of fascists, or they don’t get invited to shit. George Galloway, rape apologist and all-round tankie bellend, famously threatened to sue the NUS after they passed a no platform motion against him. And, right now, reams of column inches are being wasted on whinging about how it’s unfair and mean that noted enemy of bi women, sex workers and trans women, Julie Bindel is no platformed in a lot of spaces.*
It’s no coincidence that when someone is no platformed, the media will gladly report on the no platforming, often uncritically repeating the hate speech that got them no platformed in the first place: someone who is no platformed will generally have their own platform within traditional modes of communication. They will be a media personality. That’s how people choosing to no platform will find out that a speaker is inappropriate: from public presence. No platforming is a pretty small weapon, all things considered. It’s like throwing a pebble at a charging rhino.
Nonetheless, it’s a weapon that those who benefit from the current system want to take away from us. Their sense of entitlement to our spaces knows no bounds, and their contempt for the will of the people is evident. And so they will do what they can to quash this tiny little tool that we have.
But remember this: no platforming and censorship are not the same thing. Censorship is their tool, to keep us down. No platforming is ours, and a niggling little thorn in their side.
*As an aside, yes, I once did share a platform with Julie Bindel. My mental health was poor at the time I agreed to do it, and I didn’t really understand what I was getting in for. It went better than it could have, but it was a mistake, and I own that mistake.