Students protested an event attended by 'gender critical' speaker Helen Joyce last MichaelmasAlex Parnham-Cope

At Cambridge, free speech is the controversy that never dies. During my almost two pandemic-free years here, there has not been a term without some free speech-related debacle. From Helen Joyce at Gonville & Caius to a speaker launching into a protracted Hitler impression at the Union, it has been quite difficult to miss these controversies.

While universities hosting controversial speakers is not a new phenomenon, responding to it by pressuring universities to “deplatform” these speakers is. The logic behind such campaigns is understandable. Universities – especially Cambridge – give speakers legitimacy by hosting them. Thus, we should avoid giving speakers whose views we find objectionable this privilege of legitimacy. This might sound pretty cogent in theory, yet it fails miserably when it runs into reality.

“Why did Stock face the wrath of the deplatformers but not Kirk?”

Setting aside whether or not you value free speech in principle, even when evaluated on its own terms, deplatforming has unequivocally failed as a political project. I struggle to find a single example of a deplatforming campaign achieving its aims in Cambridge. In fact, in many cases deplatforming has exacerbated the very problems it sought to solve.

Take Kathleen Stock’s attendance at the Union in Michaelmas. In the lead up to the debate to which she had been invited, there was a vocal campaign to rescind her invite. At first glance, this seems understandable, if you accept the premises of deplatforming. I find many of Kathleen Stock’s views on trans people to be very disagreeable, one could even argue harmful. The Cambridge Union – despite its many flaws – is still a prestigious institution and so needs to be prudent in choosing which voices to host. Logically then, the Union should be pressured into cancelling Stock’s attendance.

Suffice to say, this campaign did not go to plan. Kathleen Stock’s attendance still went ahead as planned. Her speech made no reference at all to the transphobic views which the campaign was protesting, making the opposition to her attendance look all the more ridiculous. The protest at the event was captured by both photojournalists from The Times and a film crew from Channel 4, putting control of the narrative in the hands of a media which clearly does not share the aims of the protestors. This then allowed Stock and those who share her views to portray themselves as the underdogs of the culture war. Apparently, Stock and her supporters are feminists who are victims of misogyny from trans rights activists. Those who hold her views are persecuted by the tyranny of the campus majority. Of course, the idea that this activism is motivated by misogyny seems patently ridiculous to anyone familiar with these campaigns. Yet deplatforming provides the very legitimacy which sustains such arguments.

“TERFs and deplatformers are stuck in a parasitic relationship”

Charlie Kirk was also due to speak at the Union the same week as Stock. This is a man who has been implicated in the organisation of the January 6th riots. A man who has a clear contempt for liberal democracy. And not to mention views as virulent, if not more, than Stock. Yet the run up to his attendance was far more muted. And though in the end he cancelled his talk due to the Republicans’ underwhelming performance in the midterm elections, there had been no concerted effort to deplatform him. Why did Stock face the wrath of the deplatformers but not Kirk? I argue simple parochialism. Stock has serious influence in the UK whereas Kirk is largely and rightly seen as an idiot in this country. Stock and others argue this discrepancy is a result of misogyny. Ridiculous as you may find their conclusion, it is all too easy to see how they – and others – reach it.

You may argue that I’m cherry picking here. And it is true that this is a particularly illustrative example. But everywhere you look, deplatforming fails. Helen Joyce’s talk on “Criticising gender-identity ideology” at Caius in Michaelmas still went ahead despite vigorous protest. Furthermore, she – like Stock – was able to posture as a mischaracterised victim because of the attempts to prevent her from speaking. Equally, attempts earlier this term to obstruct LGB Alliance supporter, Simon Fanshawe, from speaking proved futile, and resulted in him penning an op-ed in The Times.


Mountain View

Free speech does not mean hate speech

Even in cases where deplatforming has succeeded in its immediate aims, it is not clear whether this has led to positive consequences in the long run. Jordan Peterson had his offer of a visiting fellowship at Cambridge rescinded in 2019, making headlines and further increasing his profile. Two years later, he was successfully invited to Cambridge anyway.

Most recent deplatforming efforts have revolved around trans issues. This is, perhaps, unsurprising as it is the culture war issue du jour. Yet in many ways deplatforming and its disastrous failure have played an important role in polarising the issue of trans rights. Early efforts to cancel speakers such as Germaine Greer, brought a niche issue that should have been treated with care and nuance to the front pages of the national press. Things only spiralled from there. TERFs and deplatformers are stuck in a parasitic relationship. Gender critical feminism can only exist in its present form by portraying itself as the ideological underdog. In their grand narrative, TERFs are the unpopular truth-speakers against a mindless mob. And this narrative is only possible thanks to the efforts to prevent them from speaking.

Deplatforming has become politics for politics’ sake. There seems to be little, if any, attention paid to the consequences of performing such action. It is done, not because there is any clear benefit, but because the action itself is morally virtuous. And while standing up for one’s values and ideas is admirable, this should obviously be done in a way that doesn’t undermine the very cause one is meant to be supporting.