De-platforming and free speech

It’s incredibly hard for me to feel sympathy when someone like Richard Dawkins is disinvited from a keynote speaker slot because of the way he behaves (the conference rescinded, but that’s beside the point).

The theme of attacks on his critics is that such disinvitation represents harm to his freedom of speech.
The man is a bestselling author, has numerous TV specials, is a frequent talk show guest, established speaker, and has over a million followers on Twitter. His free speech rights and ability to exercise them are utterly unassailable.

This did get me thinking about how and when a disinvitation could potentially be harmful to free speech. What kept coming to mind are activists from nations with severe restrictions on speech and Internet use. If your government is telling you what not to say and preventing you from taking the obvious route to publicly disagree, there is an obvious free speech problem. So, maybe if the speaker you’re considering disinviting fits into this scenario it would be a bad move to remove a platform. This is obviously a simplified approach to what is a real life problem too big to solve with a speech at a conference. But it’s worth looking for how and to what degree you may be wrong.

But what if we took the free speech claim at face value, but we took it a bit father and looked at who we invite to speak and not just who we ask not to. If our goal is to use our platform to advance free speech, why not give speaking positions to people of color and trans people? Or members of minority religions that Donald Trump wants to deport? Hell, if GamerGate showed us anything is that cis women are often silenced by threats and harassment. Maybe we should not invite cis men to speak until we resolve the disparity in who can speak without fear.

Some of this makes sense to weigh in the decision making process. Some people are poorly represented in public life, or are vilified. If we are going to worry about the free speech of a rich guy with a large and devoted audience, why aren’t we worried about people who are prevented in one way or another from having a platform?

De-platforming and free speech

3 thoughts on “De-platforming and free speech

  1. It’s incredibly hard for me to feel sympathy when someone like Richard Dawkins is disinvited from a keynote speaker slot because of the way he behaves

    Well, let’s look at the way he behaved.

    He said in a tweet “Obviously doesn’t apply to vast majority of feminists, among whom I count myself. But the minority are pernicious” and then linked a video about feminists loving Islamists, which equated certain language that is used by some feminists to that used by some islamists, and further suggesting that feminists are supportive of the Islamist system (which is itself very misogynistic). [It also apparently caricatured actual people, a fact that he was ignorant of and later apologized for.]

    Now is there anyway that this could be considered true? Is there a small subset of feminists who would go so far as to support the misogynistic Islamist movement. Why, yes, it turns out that there is.

    If you’re unfamiliar with the situation there it’s this:

    Maryam Namazie was giving a talk at the Goldsmith Student Union, discussing, as she is wont to do, and amongst other things, the harassment and threats she receives for discussing the abuse she experienced while a muslim due to her gender, as well as for being an apostate. Several members of the Islamic Society attended the meeting and continuously talked throughout her presentation, disturbed the presentation and at one point unplugged the computer being used to run the presentation. After this was over the Feminist society Society associated with Goldsmith issued a message of solidarity, not for the woman who was harassed throughout her presentation, has been the victim of gender based abuse for much of her life and constant threats now because she’s an apostate and dares to speak out about the horrors she experienced while a muslim woman, but to stand in solidarity with her harassers.

    Apparently, she’s at fault because by speaking about these things she’s experienced at the hands of Muslims, she’s “Islamophobic” and is invading the “Safe Space” of the Islamic Society.

    It is no doubt in mind of this event, that Dawkins retweeted this video after seeing it. (This story was posted to a bunch of blogs see for example The death of liberalism, Human Rights Campaigner Heckled. I won’t continue listing but googling “Namazie Goldsmith” will yield a slew of results)

    So now, what have we got? We’ve got a conference on skepticism where they disinvite a speaker for publicly stating something that is objectively true, but unpopular (i.e. there is a pernicious, regressive subset of feminists who are so clueless as to align themselves with a misogynistic patriarchy in the form of a religion).

    That is why I’m upset by their actions, not because they no-platformed a speaker who said something controversial, but because a “skeptical conference” so feared backlash over one of their speakers unpopular, yet objectively true, statements that they rescinded their invitation to him.


    1. Dawkins didn’t tweet that in a vacuum. I’m way more appalled by his conspiracy theories against a Muslim teen than an obnoxious video.
      Do you disagree with the points I made about when de-platforming could be problematic?


  2. I agree that de-platforming can be problematic. I just don’t hold it as a free speech issue. I don’t think that de-platforming is a de facto free speech issue (excepting a heckler’s veto in a public forum).

    I am into offering speaking spaces for as many speakers as possible, from as many viewpoints and walks of life as you can, even to to point of speakers that I might find detestably wrong. As Hitchens (I think) once put it (paraphrasing) “You do not have the right to not be offended. I propose that you have the responsibility to hear distasteful and offensive speech…How else are you to know that you’re position is correct?” (He said something like this in response to law against Holocaust denial and the arrest of someone on that charge in, again I believe, Denmark. It’s been years since I watched that particular video)

    Now, however fortunate or unfortunate it may be, big names are always going to be favored by event organizers for the big events, Key Note speeches, dinner presentations, etc. because they have to balance content with drawing in an audience. Richard Dawkins is going to draw more people to the conference that Joanna Jones (I just made up a name as an example of a relatively unknown blogger with a modest following, please excuse any similarity to any real person)

    My first comment came from the place that from what I’ve seen, the people upset about Dawkins’ unvitation are upset for the same reason it bothers me. I do not see large numbers of people criticizing the organizers from the standpoint that the dis-invitation is an issue of free speech: Thus I felt that framing it as such was a bit of a strawman*. The decision to dis-invite Dawkins seemed less an issue of avoiding controversy than one of pandering (particularly given the factually accurate but unpopular nature of the offending tweet). I wouldn’t expect that kind of pandering to pay off when the conference in question is one that is, at least in part, devoted to skepticism; and based upon his reinvitation I would guess it would not.

    As to the rest of Dawkins’ tweets, I don’t follow twitter. Further, I have a problem with taking offense to 140 character messages because nuance is lost. I think Stephen Fry has it right.

    let us grieve at what twitter has become. A stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended – worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know. It’s as nasty and unwholesome a characteristic as can be imagined. It doesn’t matter whether they think they’re defending women, men, transgender people, Muslims, humanists … the ghastliness is absolutely the same. It makes sensible people want to take an absolutely opposite point of view. I’ve heard people shriek their secularism in such a way as to make me want instantly to become an evangelical Christian.source

    *I may be completely incorrect on this point, I’m not common to go hang out where either significant Dawkins bashing nor fanboidom reign. And I don’t comment a lot, nor tend to read a lot of the comments either.

    :Note: An earlier version of this message was attempted to post which was very similar but no doubt different since I had to rewrite it. I received a failed message, but please forgive if this double posts.


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