By some arcane constitutional nonsense, if a student union general meeting here is inquorate, whilst it may discuss things its votes may only be indicative, and it is adjourned and reconvened a “week hence” at which reconvened meeting however many people as are present constitute a quorum and can ratify or overturn the decisions made at the inquorate meeting itself. I suspect this was implemented in order to avoid the recurrence of the embarrassing spectacle, from a few years ago, that even the union’s own constitution took several years to pass for want of a quorate general meeting (free pizza notwithstanding).
Anyway, all this enabled me to go along to the reconvened meeting of Brookes Union’s AGM on Friday. My main purpose was to try and get overturned the vote against my own motion from last week condemning the practice of holding exams during my middle-aged na-na nap in the early evening, and at Wheatley to boot, which, at half seven on a December evening will, no doubt feel like a night out in Pripyat. But it gave me an opportunity also to try to overturn the support from last week (to which I had not been able to go owing to a clashing Students Union meeting!) for the union to adopt a “No Platform” policy, ostensibly aimed at “racists” and “fascists” (and who isn’t a fascist to some group, like the Workers’ Institute Marxist-Leninist Mao Zedong Thought collective).
I won’t bore with the details of the motion, or indeed the brief debate, but I wanted to get to a part of my argument I don’t think anyone who responded in the meeting grasped. Who loses from a “No Platform” policy? In Mill’s language, who is harmed by “No Platform”?
When issues around the freedom of thought, expression and speech arise, we often think of one or both of two people: Voltaire with his (misattributed) "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” dictum and John Stuart Mill, 19th century Utilitarian Liberal Political Philosopher, the first part of whose seminal “On Liberty” is often cited as a paean of praise for free speech. And it is true, I admit that I am an unabashed absolutist in free speech, mainly because of Mill.
Voltaire’s supposed idea (the phrase comes from Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s own summary of Voltaire’s thought rather than his actual words) defends the right of the speaker to be able to express his or her opinion unimpeded, however disturbing or erroneous others think that opinion may be. And that is usually, I think, how people see issues of “free speech” - whether the speaker is being denied a fundamental and “negative” liberty. If that were all “free speech” was about, then some of the rejoinders to me may have been valid: that of course banned speakers, if there ever were any, were not having their rights denied just because we decide not to let them speak here, for they can exercise their right elsewhere just as easily. Us not inviting them is not silencing them: they are merely joining the approximately seven billion other people in the world we have chosen not to invite.
But Mill’s concern, and mine, is that it is the hearer, or potential hearer, or frustrated non-hearer perhaps more accurately, who is deprived by this sort of “no platform” policy. Indeed that society as a whole is deprived. Even were it necessary to protect young children from what their guardians think are erroneous opinions until an age they feel they can “make up their own minds” it becomes presumptuous to treat similarly well educated adults, which, in the context of a Higher Education Institution well inside the top half of any league tables, I will assume we consider ourselves to be.
These erroneous opinions do not go away simply by ignoring them, or by passing a “no platform” policy, as if by magic, as with any legislative ban on things we don’t like. They have to be argued away. In the words of the one line of the motion I could wholeheartedly support error, in this case racism, “should be confronted wherever it is found.” This job is an important one. It is only through debate and contact that people can be persuaded out of erroneous opinion.
And each little victory adds to the credibility and security of the truth. Indeed Mill says that if we refuse such a challenge, if we silence or ignore an erroneous opinion rather than confront it, we may begin to forget just how vile it is and risk dulling our arguments against it. Just as many people urge us never to forget on Remembrance Day, lest we forget the horrors of war and are doomed to repeat them, so every time we wage war against error and win we bolster the truth. Even if we wage that war and occasionally lose, if we learn from our defeats we will be better equipped to win next time.
So where else should that debate be held, but in the halls of higher learning, full of truth seekers and brimming with skilled orators? Does that somehow rule out Brookes? I hope not! Better in that sort of milieu than on the streets, from behind barricades, with weapons.
There certainly is a sense also in which Mill wants for the holder of erroneous opinion to have that debate too. How is one converted from erroneous opinion except by hearing the truth? I doubt, for instance, though I know little of the actual facts of the case, that Tommy Robinson would have seen the truth about the EDL that he founded, if he were “no platformed” so that he was only ever preaching to his own choir and not being challenged and debated. No, his message, unchallenged, would find its intended audience unhindered, with the potential to grow and gain even more traction before being confronted by reason. Indeed, for many fringe groups, “no platform” is itself a sort of a perverse affirmation sometimes expressed by Gandhi's “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."
But it is, fundamentally, the rest of us who have the “positive liberty" to be allowed to hear and to challenge error. It is, obviously, Brookes Union’s prerogative as a private members’ club, to decide who it wants at its, and its societies’ events. But to start deciding on behalf of an entire “scholastic community” of adults, in higher education, what they should not be permitted to hear seems to me a significant change in their responsibilities and their relationship with the broader membership - from representative to censor - that ought to be dealt with via the constitution of the union rather than by a policy motion which, whatever meeting one counts, probably garnered a few tens of people at most willing to debate it or vote on it.
The opportunity to confront and correct error is an honour. To do so well ought to be a "graduate attribute" for "citizens living lives of consequence”. To know that someone at least, someone you may know perhaps, is doing so, somewhere near here, sometime soon, ought to be greater comfort for those made uncomfortable by any particular erroneous opinion than hiding that opinion away and pretending our help to defeat it is not needed. To deny us that honour is to doubt the wider student body, the union’s members, capable of doing so.
There! That got that off my chest!