So You’ve Been No-Platformed?

Ah, “no-platforming”… a somewhat controversial tactic attributed mostly to the snake people generation. And for those with that particular browser extension installed, I actually did write “snake people” there.

It goes something like this.

Step 1: Person [A], while on a book tour, or speaking tour or generally milling about trying to justify their inexplicable life, says something monumentally awful. Like, I dunno, “trans-women are just men pretending to be women and grotesque” or “slavery was the best thing to happen to blacks” or “let’s stone the gays because God says so”. That kind of thing.

Step 2: A student union rep (it’s often an SU, you know, those major bastions of establishment power…) says “that’s bad” and follows the condemnation with some action, namely “I don’t want to debate you, and I don’t want to pay your travel expenses to host you any more”.

And that’s it. Literally, that’s it.

I don’t really want to condone the practice, exactly. To me, it’s a little petulant and often a case of SU officers trying to pretend that they wield actual power and responsibility – ha, as if! And it suffers from the occasional misfire that will see an under-represented voice quashed.

But, despite all that, it’s not exactly a major thing.

Say, you cancel a speaking or debate gig with Person [A], then Person [B]  – someone who otherwise never had the chance to speak – takes their place. Indeed, inviting [A] to speak effectively oppresses [B]’s exposure by default. There’s only so many hours in the day, and only so many pounds in the grant account to pay for train fares, someone is going to lose out at some point.

And, to be fair, no-platforming isn’t entirely unique to the world of supposedly molly-coddled students. If I call someone up and demand to use their living room to scream abuse at them, and then demand they pay me my travel expenses for the privilege and also give me free use of their megaphone to scream that personal abuse at them, they’ll almost certainly say “no”. And most people would agree that, in doing so, they would be within their rights. While not a perfect analogy, no-platforming isn’t a million miles away from that. “Oh, you want to take our money to come to us and speak? Sorry, we’ve seen the previews and we’re not interested, thanks.” Gee, that is something to definitely lose sleep over.

So, that’s it, nothing to it… oh, wait, sorry. I forgot. There’s a third step. Whoops, silly me, scatterbrain!

Step 3: Person [A] immediately goes total fucking apeshit everywhere. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, the news, newspapers, magazines, interviews, radio, TV… all to complain about the terrible oppression of their free speech!

So, there’s that, too.

And as much as I have a mixed-to-meh “well, it’s kinda naughty but not a big deal” attitude towards no-platforming, make no mistake – I think people engaging in Step 3 are the fucking worst.

Let’s take a look at it from a few different angles. If your only recourse to no-plaforming is to be interviewed in newspapers and magazines, and have your voice broadcast to millions of people, then your freedom of speech isn’t under threat.

This isn’t even a case of defining “freedom of speech” as “only the government can’t stop you saying it”; your freedom to speak literally has not been threatened at all. You just simply haven’t been invited to a small, insignificant corner of the world – congratulations, you’re now no different to the countless millions, nay, billions, that don’t get such privilege. You’re now invited to speak your mind at the exact same number of University of Fuck-Nowhere events as I am. However will you cope with such menacing injustice?

The oppression and censorship you claim literally isn’t happening to you. You have not been stopped from saying whatever you want.

This isn’t to say that if your only outlet really was that one-in-a-million shot at speaking in front of some students for 15 minutes, and you were no-platformed by some vindictive arsehole for no reason, that you don’t have a legitimate complaint. But 1) by-and-large, that isn’t what happens, and 2) I’m not addressing this to you. Please make your non-ironic stink and we’ll talk it over like grown adults in due course.

free_speech_chart

There’s an irony to how these people claim oppression by a simple act of a single person, or one, lone, insignificant organisation, not wanting to put up with their shit for an evening or two. Yet, often, the views being “censored” are very much of a kind that endorses (Warning: Social Justice Jargon Aheadsystematic oppression.

“Oh, you hate migrants, gays, transgender men and women…? Good for you, Skippy, but we’re not interested. We’re going to put your talk on the back-burner and invite someone with a more positive message, instead.” That’s it. That’s all that’s involved in this process. Yes, I’m sure it is a little tragic that we exclude people from certain aspects of one conversation happening in one place in the country at one time, but in the grand scheme of things I can’t help but shrug.

After all, if their speech was genuinely under threat, then how could we possibly know what they had to say in advance?

The answer: it’s 2016, we have the internet, and odds are they’ve been doing the speaking circuit for decades. We know what’s coming. I don’t need someone to come to me to say their piece – it’s out there, because speech in a western democracy is pretty free. We’ve read it. We were unconvinced by it. And those opinions are probably pretty mainstream, too.

I get it, I do. If you’re used to barging around getting your way, getting unrestricted attention and praise, and have people fawn over you saying “oh, aren’t you so brave saying these perfectly mainstream things in a safe environment!”, when someone comes along and slaps a boundary on you it will feel bad. But if your only opportunity to express how bad it really feels is in your nationally syndicated newspaper column read by millions, in a special magazine report with you taking centre-stage, in blogs shared by thousands, and on prime-time television and radio shows… just fuck off and get over yourself already because I’m sick of your bullshit.

Unpopular Opinion Alert – No, I Don’t Care

Stuff is getting too predictable…

  1. Tragedy happens in a European country.
  2. People declare solidarity, mourn the tragedy, stand together, make grand gestures, etc.
  3. A few others declare “BUT WHAT ABOUT [X] and [Y]?!?” and “But you didn’t show this for another country further away!!”
  4. Another addition is “but we can care about more than one thing” noting that we do care about [X] and [Y] and showing solidarity with the local tragedy doesn’t say we can’t.

Those making point no.3 irk me. I can’t stand it. Do you really care? Are you really involved and deeply compassionate about those events? Or, are you just saying this to show off? “Look how much more knowledgeable I am than you!” It’s showing off. It’s nothing but self-serving mock-compassion to say that you’re better at it than everyone else. And that always annoys me – the kind of “I can feminist more than you” and “I’m better at atheisting than you” and “I can compassionate better than you!” showboating that comes across as crass asshattery.

Yes, point no.3 pisses me off, still does, and will probably continue for a while yet.

But this time around… I think I’m losing patience with point no.4, too. It’s been my go-to position for a while. “I can care about more than one thing” I’d say. But on close reflection it’s a lie. Did I really care?

No, honestly. I didn’t care. And I don’t now. I don’t know why, and I can’t quite figure it out. But I struggle to really care. I look at the news and shrug. I can say the words, but every time it feels more like a conditioned response. I don’t feel much. I’m starting to think compassion is, in fact, a zero-sum game. If I care more about Belgium I’ll care less about Yemen. If I care more about Yemen I’ll care less about Belgium. Or I can very superficially care about both, but I have to spread thinly over it. I can muster a brief “sigh” and a “isn’t the world shit?” and then move on with the frantic pace of life. “Shit, rapists are going free”, “damn, the Republicans are racist as fuck”, “wait, did the Conservatives just try to screw over the disabled again!?”

“PICK ME! PICK ME! PICK ME!!” each of these things squeal. And by the end of the day I’m left questioning whether I really do care. As in, care care. Yes, I acknowledge the existence of this Thing that has caught my attention… but I don’t feel anything for it.

Is that right, or wrong? Doesn’t really matter, I suppose, because it just is.

If I spent an equal amount of time caring equally about all tragedies, then one of three things would happen.

  • One, I’d care very lightly and briefly about everything – putting up a “Prayfor[X]” template and moving on rapidly to the next thing, like a short-and-sweet”sorry to hear that, you’re all in my thoughts” before quickly moving back to some casual game and, quite literally, not having ever really put anyone in my thoughts for a considerable period of time.
  • Or, two, it would take up all of my time. I’d have to care about everything, and that means research, and reading, and paying close attention to news. Not just major news; local news from every country, countless unknown blogs, and really trawling deep into the news from around the globe to get all of it. It would become a 24 hour job just to know what was out there and get enough information about it. I’d have no time for anything else. At best, I could last a week before going mad, torn apart by the sheer quantity of shit in the world to pay attention to.
  • Or, the third possibility – the worst of both worlds would happen. It would take up all my time, send me mad and my care-factor would still be pathetically superficial across a limited sub-set of events. I’d use up all my feeling, my energy, my brain-space and my time just to write “I care about this!” a hundred times a day. But that’d be a lie because I wouldn’t care. And it’d be a lie that helps no-one, it wouldn’t even make me feel better – it’d be a lie to impress others. And at this point, they’d see through the charade. I feel this third option is the most likely result, too.

A global perspective is good. Definitely. I will endorse that forever. It gives us more information to play with. It lets us make more rational decisions by giving the broadest view. Yes, more Muslims have been killed by Daesh. Yes, that’s true. More attacks attributed to that quasi-state have happened outside of Europe than in, and caused more deaths by a clear, undeniable margin. The statistics are there like a Cochrane medical review and do not lie – but like a medical review I’m interested in the final stats and their significance to get my information and make a decision. It’s information. I can’t feel anything for every single tragic story that lies behind each one of those data points. I know it’s there, but I can’t deal with it. And I think anyone who tells you that they could is lying to sound impressive.

We care about things that are salient to us. We care more when a bomb goes off in a city 50 miles from us than 500 miles away; and more about one 500 miles away than 5,000 miles. We care more if one goes off in a city we’ve visited because we recognise that shop that’s now blown out in the background of a news report and think “I was just there a few weeks ago!” We care more if we know someone is living there because if they were hurt we might never see them again.

We care more when it’s someone close to us.

Did anyone else out there notice a student of mine died a few weeks ago? No, you didn’t. You didn’t stand in solidarity with my students, with my department, or with my university who lost someone they knew closely. You didn’t mop up tears of people as they came into a dry academic office, you didn’t have to re-organise exams and lab hours around a funeral. It had no salience and no impact on you, and you know it. You didn’t give a shit about that event. But get this – I absolutely wouldn’t expect you to. I almost don’t even want you to try and care. Don’t waste your sanity points on it; it won’t impress anyone except yourself. You have things closer to you to worry about.

Our compassion, our genuine mindful consideration, is a limited resource. And that’s because the alternatives are worse; superficial lies masquerading as caring, or insanity. So I’m not going to apologise for it any more. If something happens elsewhere in the world, it’s not that I don’t want to care, I quite literally can’t.