Attempting to deny someone a platform is throwback to old-fashioned intolerance
Challenging troublesome viewpoints in public, not censoring them, is key to freedom of expression, says Fionola Meredith
Last week, Hitler came to town. Or so you might have thought, given the levels of hysteria on social media and elsewhere. Actually, it was only the journalist and author Douglas Murray, here to promote his best-selling book, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. But the reaction was almost as bad.
Let me say right now that I am no fan of this dapper, self-satisfied, right-wing old Etonian. He's an intellectual Ukipper, in my view, and I find many of his them-and-us pronouncements on Europe and Islam troubling, fear-mongering and highly selective.
True, I didn't hear Murray say anything wildly outrageous or controversial when he spoke at the Belfast Book Festival last Friday. He didn't do the full wild-eyed Pastor McConnell, the evangelical preacher who was put on trial for saying Islam was "heathen", "satanic" and "a doctrine spawned in hell". He's far too smart for that. But I sensed a darker undertow to his plausible-sounding words, and I thought he was as wily and slippery as a Lough Neagh eel.
Yet if the Belfast Anti-Racism Forum had their way, Murray would not have appeared in Belfast at all. Members of this group made a concerted attempt to 'no-platform' the author, calling on the festival to rescind his invitation. Critics of Murray also threatened to picket the event.
In a letter to organisers, the forum cited Murray's "hateful, divisive and dangerous views on Muslims, migrants, and minorities", and argued that he should not be given a platform to express them at an event that receives public funding. According to the forum, this was not an attempt to censor Murray, because he has a column in the Spectator magazine and speaks regularly in the British press and elsewhere.
Wow. What phenomenal arrogance, what pious virtue-signalling. Who are these self-appointed guardians of public morality to decide which views we may or may not be allowed to hear? Don't they believe in the fundamental democratic principle of freedom of expression? Or does that only apply when views that they approve are being aired?
Scanning the list of names and organisations which were signatories to the Anti-Racism Forum's letter, I was not surprised to see the Belfast Feminist Network. This group already has form when it comes to seeking to suppress viewpoints that it opposes. It tried to ban an anti-abortion event at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival, which, ironically enough, was supposed to create "a space for different arguments and positions on human rights issues to be set out and considered, even on the most contested subjects".
But I was disappointed at the number of academics who were willing to sign up for a ban on Murray, including John Barry, a professor of political economy at Queen's University and former joint leader of the Green party in Northern Ireland. I don't always agree with Barry's views, but I thought he would be firmly on the side of freedom of expression, not censorship and suppression.
Here's the vital thing. However hateful you find someone's claims, it is far, far better to challenge them, as strongly and cogently as you can - fully armed with the facts of the matter - than to seek to silence them, or prevent them being heard. More speech, not less speech, is the honourable, courageous, enlightened stance, and the best way to call opponents to account, whether the topic is immigration or abortion or anything else.
Daniel Jewesbury, who was given the task of interviewing Douglas Murray in Belfast last Friday, did exactly that. He did not shelter piously behind a mask of virtue, but instead interrogated Murray with consistency, courtesy and tenacity. This is the way to publicly counter questionable viewpoints. You certainly don't do it by kicking your opponent off the stage and refusing to speak to him.
In the end, there was no picket or protest outside the Douglas Murray event, although the Belfast Book Festival must have been wary of trouble, because there were more burly security guards patrolling through the crowd than I've ever seen at any arts festival before.
Perhaps the no-platformers suddenly realised that standing outside a theatre, telling patrons that what they are about to hear is hateful, dangerous and damaging to society, and should be banned, would make them no different from the fundamentalist Christians who stand outside theatres telling patrons that what they are about see is hateful, dangerous and damaging to society, and should be banned.
One might be a protest about racism, the other might be a protest about nudity or blasphemy. But both spring from the same intolerance. What we choose to see or hear is our own business, nobody else's.