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Cross Post: Why No-Platforming is Sometimes a Justifiable Position

Written by Professor Neil Levy

Originally published in Aeon Magazine

The discussion over no-platforming is often presented as a debate between proponents of free speech, who think that the only appropriate response to bad speech is more speech, and those who think that speech can be harmful. I think this way of framing the debate is only half-right. Advocates of open speech emphasise evidence, but they overlook the ways in which the provision of a platform itself provides evidence.

No-platforming is when a person is prevented from contributing to a public debate, either through policy or protest, on the grounds that their beliefs are dangerous or unacceptable. Open-speech advocates highlight what we might call first-order evidence: evidence for and against the arguments that the speakers make. But they overlook higher-order evidence.

Higher-order evidence is evidence about how beliefs were formed. We often moderate our confidence in our beliefs in the light of higher-order evidence. For instance, you might find the arguments in favour of booking plane tickets to Las Vegas right now compelling, but hesitate in light of the fact that you’re really drunk. The fact that you’re drunk is higher-order evidence: it’s evidence that you might not be processing first-order evidence well. Maybe the case for going to Las Vegas won’t seem quite so compelling in the morning.

Higher-order evidence has been the focus of a great deal of discussion in contemporary epistemology, under the heading of the epistemic significance of disagreement. Here’s a familiar example: you and a friend have decided to split the bill 50/50 for your meal. Each of you separately adds up all the items you both had, using the prices listed on the menu (the bill is taking forever to arrive), and divide the total by two. You conclude that you each owe £34, but she thinks the right amount is £36. You know that you’re more or less equally reliable at mental arithmetic. In this case, you have all the relevant first-order evidence easily at hand, but when you discover the disagreement, you should reduce confidence in your answer. Having discovered that your friend disagrees, you should recheck the calculation. At least one of you has made a mistake, and you have no more reason to think it’s her than you. So you should lower your confidence in your belief.

An invitation to speak at a university campus, a prestigious event or to write an opinion piece for a newspaper provides (prima facie) higher-order evidence. It is evidence that the speaker is credible; that she has an opinion deserving a respectful hearing. It typically certifies expertise, and expertise is higher-order evidence that the person’s opinion should be given particular weight (consider a case such as the restaurant bill example above, but now the maths involved is difficult, and the dispute pits you against a maths PhD; it’s clear you should think it is much more likely that you have made a mistake than that she has, and you should defer to her).

Epistemologists have pointed out that we can sometimes hold fast to our beliefs in the face of disagreement, because the best explanation of why she disagrees with me is that she isn’t competent about this matter, or she’s joking, or trolling me. An invitation to speak at a credible venue is evidence that the person is competent, and is sincere. It therefore provides weighty higher-order evidence.

An invitation to speak confers credibility because it selects someone, from among the large crowd of potential speakers, as the person whom we should hear. The credibility stems both from the fact of selection and from the prestige of the venue they are selected to speak at. Self-selection confers no credibility at all. If I jump on a soapbox at Hyde Park corner, I have self-selected, and no extra credibility is conferred on me (if anything, speaking in this kind of venue confers negative higher-order evidence: people might think I’m a crank, and take me less seriously). How strong the higher-order evidence conferred by an invitation is depends on the prestige of the venue – being invited to give a TED talk confers a great deal of credibility, since the organisation is so prestigious – and facts about how the selection procedure is taken to work.

To see how this plays out in practice, consider the controversy over the documentary Root Cause (2019), which peddles the discredited view that root-canal treatments cause cancer. The documentary is available on Netflix and Amazon. In an interview with The Guardian recently, the media scholar Erica Austin at Washington State University said that, unlike YouTube where content is user-generated, being available on those sites confers credibility on the documentary. Being on YouTube is like getting up on my soapbox: no extra credibility is conferred on me by self-selection. But being selected for Netflix or Amazon confers some credibility. Of course, Netflix and Amazon are not very selective, and the credibility conferred is quite minimal. Being invited to speak at a university confers much more credibility.

Higher-order evidence is genuine evidence. It is rational to respond to higher-order evidence by moderating our confidence in our beliefs, sometimes even to abandon them altogether (as when I find myself disagreeing with someone who has much more expertise than me). Advocates of no-platforming therefore can cite epistemic considerations in favour of their view. They can reasonably argue that inviting someone to give arguments that are bad or false generates misleading evidence, and we should avoid generating misleading evidence. If someone is likely to speak in favour of a view we know to be false, we have grounds to no-platform them, because we know that providing them with a platform by itself provides higher-order evidence in favour of that view.

Importantly, higher-order evidence is extremely difficult to rebut. If my university gives a platform to a climate-change skeptic, it provides higher-order evidence in favour of her view. That higher-order evidence is not rebutted by the university inviting another speaker later to ‘balance’ her, or if she is subject to a devastating response from the floor. We can rebut her claim that global warming isn’t occurring, but we cannot rebut her claim that the invitation certifies my expertise.

Of course, the invitation is only prima facie higher-order evidence. If we discover that she was invited only because she made a big donation to the school, or because she is the dean’s cousin, that evidence is considerably weakened. It is this kind of consideration – not rational argument – that rebuts higher-order evidence. We rebut higher-order evidence using approaches that many open-speech arguments deplore, because they don’t address first-order evidence. An ad hominem attack (he’s funded by the oil industry; he’s a racist) or attacks on the credibility of those who provided him with a platform do not address his arguments, but they are often appropriate responses to higher-order evidence.

Free speech is genuinely valuable. Knowledge is produced through argument and debate, and good societies allow the expression of dissent. There are costs to suppressing speech. But the fact that the provision of a platform provides higher-order evidence in favour of a view entails that there are epistemic considerations on both sides of this debate. When we have good reason to think that the position advocated by a potential speaker is wrong, we have an epistemic reason in favour of no-platforming: we can be confident that providing her with a platform will produce evidence in favour of her views that it is very difficult to rebut (and which can’t be rebutted by argument). Sometimes, at least, this consideration will be weighty enough to justify refusing to provide speakers with a platform.Aeon counter – do not remove

Neil Levy

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.Aeon counter – do not remove

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8 Comment on this post

  1. [Saw this originally on Daily Nous, but the comment section over there has gotten quite long and unwieldy]

    This account of (one) consideration in favour of no-platforming is attractive, but I’m not sure it’s ultimately distinct from the original framing of the debate – whether “the only appropriate response to bad speech is more speech” or “speech can be harmful” and stifled on those grounds. Ultimately, that dispute seems to be over whether a given speaker is ‘worth listening to’ (with proponents of no-platforming saying those harms outweigh any purported discursive benefits, making it not worthwhile, and opponents saying the opposite of stifling speech by disinviting). A free speech advocate who believes being open to hearing wrong-headed views is necessary for proper discourse will answer ‘yes’ at the first-order level. And on the same grounds it seems they should answer ‘yes’ at the higher-order level as well: the institution is *correct* to confer some degree of credibility on the speaker, because of the very same reason – doing so would advance debate, by people paying more attention to arguments/considerations they would otherwise problematically ignore. This isn’t a strict logical entailment (theoretically, the speech could enhance debate in the audience at the cost of broader societal repercussions), but I don’t immediately see a difference in the reasoning for the value of the speech at the two levels.

    Maybe that’s addressing a different free speech advocate than you have in mind, though, Neil? I’m thinking of someone like Haidt, who seems predominantly concerned with the effect stifling speech has on the content of public/academic debate and thinking. i.e., free speech is justified by the discursive value it brings to society. By contrast, a rights-based defense of free speech would instead focus on the intrinsic rights violation of stifling speech. They may concede that stifling wrong-headed speech might sometimes overall benefit society, but reply that the rights-violation of stifling such speech outweighs such benefits (or perhaps trumps them). In that case, the higher-order credibility effect exacerbates the baseline harm of espousing wrong views to an audience (it makes people other than the audience more likely to take them seriously, expanding the scope of those who are wrongly taken in by the speaker’s views), and perhaps the overall benefit of stifling speech outweighs the rights violation more often than we would otherwise think.

    1. Thanks Owen. I had in mind as my tarbet primarily the advocate who you think escapes my critique. They claim that no platforming is a refusal to engage with evidence; my claim is that they ignore some of the evidence in play. There are (defeasible) evidential considerations that proponents can cite.

      It’s perfectly coherent to maintain that for any particular view we ought to confer some degree of prima facie credibility on that view. But that’s not what Haidt and others claim. They say we should listen even when it’s “abhorrent”. They don’t recognize the higher-order evidence in favor of the view (roughly, that it deserves a hearing) that platforming generates.

  2. While I like the thrust of your argument, it strikes me that this does not really get at many of the “abhorrent” views that it should like to. It works fairly well for climate denial because the evidence base is so compellingly pulling against the denialist. How would this position respond to a speaker who wanted to challenge the evidential orthodoxy, whether conspiratorially or not?How would it respond to a defender of race realism whose argument is that the evidence for biological racial distinctions and their sociological implications are abundant but under political suppression? How does it decide on the question of so-called trans-exclusionary speakers who query whether gender can be treated primarily as a social-performative construction that can be decoupled for biology?

    In each of these cases the evidence, the validity of its gathering and legitimacy of its use, is precisely the subject that is being disputed. These also happen to be among the most frequent cases being discussed in no-platforming debates. To repeat, the claim regarding higher-order evidence in favour of an abhorrent view being enough to constitute reason for its legitimate suppression is *exactly* the claim that high profile cases of individuals that have been no-platformed have often been disputing.

    If this is the case then how can your argument respond to their counter-claim that points out that evidence and its interpretation is exactly what is at issue?

    1. We don’t need to reopen questions because some is questioning them. Indeed, that’s the point: sometimes we have good reason *not* to reopen questions.

      1. The exchange would look like this then:

        Disputant: The evidence on which view X is considered abhorrent is false or falsely interpreted

        Defender: We are not going to review this because we have good evidence to think we do not need to re-examine the

        Disputant: This is evidence of moral and/or political suppression

        My point is that this does not resolve the problem so much as describe it.

        1. I’m not sure what counts as “resolving” the problem, in your view. Satisfying the disputant? They’ll never be satisfied until everyone agrees with them. On many disputes, what Defender in your little dialogue says is the rational thing to say. People keep asking that we listen to them as they deny evolution. The rational thing to do, in most cases, is to say “no”. What more do you want?

          1. What I want is to be able to dismiss the disputant in a manner that does not provide her the rhetorical ability to re-frame that dismissal as evidence of how suppressed and censored they are. In many cases being no-platformed is used as a demonstration of being a dissident truth-teller.

            I am convinced by your argument (especially regarding climate denial) but I would like to be able to disarm rather than dismiss the disputant. Perhaps I am asking your position to do more than can be justified.

            1. I acknowledge that the risk you point to is a real one. It’s actually a problem that turns on higher-order evidence: the person no platformed can point to that as higher-order evidence about their own views. But there’s risk on both sides. Creationists have deliberately sought debates with high-profile scientists in order to say that they’ve debated them. Winning the debate is great (and a creationist can win a debate with an evolutionary biologist, because winning a debate is about presentation as much as substance) but taking part is good all by itself. So where’s the bigger risk? I guess this is in part an empirical question: what is seen as conferring more legitimacy? It might differ from issue to issue.

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