Sunday 14 February 2016

Notes on Peter Tatchell and No Platform

Another day, another row about a lefty notable getting "no-platformed" by the yoof. On this occasion, it's Peter Tatchell who's come under fire. Fran Cowling of the NUS's LGBT caucus has issued an ultimatum to organisers of a debate around radical queer politics at Canterbury Christ Church University saying she will not attend if Peter is speaking. Apparently he has made racist and transphobic comments in the past, and is beyond the pale because he protested against an attempt to bar Germaine Greer from a feminist meeting at Cardiff University.

Time to throw down some notes.

1. While Peter has acquired national treasure status, as an activist and courageous human being he has shown time and again a willingness to put himself and his safety on the line for the liberation of LGBT people. So when a little known NUS rep makes claims that go beyond fair criticism and are borderline libellous, you can understand why a fair few people are incredulous.

2. Germaine Greer remains the country's best known feminist thinker, and she has several controversial opinions that arguably contradict the thrust of her politics. Scrapping the right to anonymity for rape survivors is one, and being a card carrying LibDem throughout the period of the Coalition government is another. Her views about trans people are well known and are out of step with the growing momentum behind trans acceptance. By showing solidarity with her when she was targeted for disinvitation (she wasn't no-platformed) by a campaign led by Cardiff union's women's officer, Peter could have been perceived as being 'soft' on transphobic matters.

3. No platforming operates according to a certain logic. It is necessarily censorious, but is not simply so. As longtime readers know, no platforming is a tactic that emerged in the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s, though the term only came into common currency during the 70s. To 'no platform' meant taking direct action, often violent, to prevent fascist organisations from running marches, holding meetings and rallies, and to deny them any public platform at all. This wasn't because they were nasty, it's because it was part of a life and death struggle for political space. Where that fight was won by the brown shirts and black shirts, the hell of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany tells you what exactly was at stake. To reiterate, no platforming was something that was enforced by the martial power of communist, radical, and labour movement forces. It was an expression of working class confidence and power and not the state or some other institution denying fascists meeting rooms.

4. What has been happening in our universities, be it Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell, or Maryam Namazie somewhat falls short of no platforming classically conceived. But times change. Come the 1990s and 2000s, the tactic had been transformed into a principle, mainly by the SWP who were the chief "inspiration" behind the Anti-Nazi League and then Unite Against Fascism. Unlike Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action, who still physically confronted and violently assaulted fascists well into the 90s, direct confrontation was the exception rather than the rule for the SWP. Activities were centered around making fascists into political untouchables - debate with them was to be avoided as that granted them legitimacy. Likewise mainstream politicians, especially of the labour movement, were called on to refuse to share platforms with them, be it at hustings events or election counts. It also meant protesting outside venues where fascists, such as the BNP, had been given a platform by a third party. That "classic" Question Time episode with Nick Griffin being a case in point.

5. There are a whole lot of other things going on with the attempts to no platform established activists, not least generational dynamics. But sticking with the logic of no platforming, it does make a contribution. As activism and politics is a key marker of personal commitment and identity - at least among those who care about such things - a logic of by their friends shall ye know them comes into play. It's not a matter of so-called virtue signalling, which is an invention of the right to explain away why people opposed to them sometimes hold radical views, but rather a concern that debating, in this case, someone with imputed transphobic views somehow grants those prejudices a legitimacy they shouldn't have. Hence the best way to stick up for trans people and other minorities is to not give naysaying voices any credence - especially when they tend to have the mass media at their disposal, anyway.


David Timoney said...

Some additional notes.

1. You appear reluctant to draw any conclusion.

2. No platform is a property right and therefore a contest of privilege.

3. Most trans are not students yet the NUS (and other student bodies) has a disproportionate say in their public representation.

4. I believe Fran Cowling is threatening a personal boycott - i.e. she will not share a platform. I don't think the NUS on this occasion has no-platformed Peter Tatchell. As such this is frankly non-news.

That is all.

Phil said...

Last point's a red herring - perhaps Tatchell, Greer et al can take comfort from all their other platforms, but that would still be the case if they'd been barred for (e.g.) being White - or Australian - which we wouldn't find acceptable. So: is Peter guilty of transphobia, or incitement of transphobia, or complicity with transphobia, or doing anything with transphobia other than opposing it?

paulocanning said...

Am at a slight loss to understand your argument here. We dont actually know what was in Cowling's emails as she apparently just made claims then refused to back them up. I have seen Peter called 'transphobic' for other reasons that the Greer/free speech letter.

The 'racist' argument against Peter is dangerous because this is based, IMO, on his opposition to Islamists and, less well known, the idea that solidarity work by Westerners, like Peter, on LGBT work in the Global South is inherently 'imperialist'. It is dangerous because I have witnessed people supporting this actually undermining such work.

Having watched Cowling supporters tweeting Tatchell=racist all day I don't think they deserve any defence, least of all from socialists.

Unknown said...

The NUS policy of 'no platform' came into effect in 1974, but already by the early 1980s, certain groups on campus, particularly some feminist groups wanted the policy extended. I wrote about the origins of the 'no platform' policy here:

Alex Ross said...

I can see why a university might have a blanket policy around those who have incited violence against particular groups – out of a duty of care (so no fascists, theocrats wanting to impose the death penalty on gays/apostates….etc.). I can also see why universities might want to be selective in terms of who they invite. Life is finite and I’m not sure there is that much benefit in listening to someone akin to David Icke or a flat-earth theorist. You can’t invite everyone.

But, in this case we are talking about two prominent and influential political campaigners (Tatchell and Greer)…both who have said some stupid things (Greer on transsexuals, Tatchell on that awful poser Assange, and also on paedophilia). PT’s support of Greer was on principled free speech grounds – in the same way he’s defended the right to free speech for religious evangelical homophobes in the past. PTs point is that stupidity is best openly challenged rather than have self-appointed guardians of our welfare attempt to prevent people from listening to the argument and learning from it.

Whilst neither case is technically “no-platforming” - it reflects an alarming tendency of censoriousness in an environment in which openness should be a fundamental guiding principle. In my Uni days, it was the Trots hounding anyone with what were deemed to be unacceptable views (including, for example, geneticists whose conclusions around race and ethnicity they found unpalatable - instead of challenging the (highly dubious) science, they had to be silenced instead). With Trotskyism now in the dustbin, it seems to be a collection of left-leaning, jargon-wielding gender theorists, queer theorists and oversensitive accusers of “islamophobia” who have taken up that mantle.

Whilst sometimes these people have laudable aims, it’s difficult to see where the natural boundaries lie. Should the principle be extended to those who don’t have a fully-fledged open borders stance on immigration (are they complicit in our failings in moral duties towards refugees – so should they be “no-platformed”?), those who have defended Tory policies on austerity (are they complicit in marginalising many of the poorest people in society – so ditto!). You’ll eventually end up with people just talking to themselves (which sometimes, I get the distinct impression that is actually what they want to do!!).

Also, finally, there is a strategic consideration. From experience, one of the most common accusations I get as a left-winger is that we’re all secret Stalinists who would introduce gulags and though police at the drop of a hat on attainment of political power. And, OK, a minority fit that description to a tee…but it’s a very damaging perception and instances like this don’t really help.

Anonymous said...

yeah, phil, but the phrase "by their friends shall ye know them" makes it seem that radical politics is a private club rather than a way to change the balance of social forces.


asquith said...

I, naturally, oppose no platform and the related boycott of Israel. At one legendary students' union meeting in 2005, I was one of a handful to vote against no platform, and the only member of that group of refuseniks that also voted to condemn the government's attempt to ban magic mushrooms and other related legal highs. So I was the only one to take a consistent liberal line. And as an old-line liberal I won't be taking part in this identity politics.

I confess to being baffled by these "intersectionality" "activists". Peter Tatchell's views definitely aren't mine, such as on lowering the age of consent, but how is he any worse than Goldsmiths Islamic Society, that staggeringly were deemed to be "oppressed" and Maryam Namazie (that hero of min) the "oppressor".

BCFG said...

The liberal line would of course be,

"I, naturally, oppose no platform and the related boycott of Israel but defend the right to do it!"

The liberal would have to also add:

"I oppose the boycott of Israel but have no opinion on the land theft"

Which would be a bit like saying

"I know these goods are knocked off and that people were killed in acquiring them but I am buying them nonetheless, as I am a good liberal"

The tactic of no platform is indeed a property right, as those that own property are using it to defend the so called centre ground, which is under attack from the so called extremes.

The last refugee of the reactionary appears to be political correctness!

Chris said...

"Rape survivors", "transphobic" - oh my!