The left and struggles for liberation need free speech

Submitted by AWL on 23 November, 2017 - 3:22 Author: UCL Workers' Liberty


(Students & workers protest as part of the left-led Free Speech Movement in the 1960s at the University of California Berkeley)

UCL's student union council will vote on two motions this Thursday that would extend our union's existing use of "no-platform" tactics from fascists to all racists and specifically to anyone with links (potentially very loosely construed) to the Israeli military. Workers' Liberty Students supports the existing policy of no-platform for fascists, but we do not believe that this is an appropriate or effective tactic for tackling the racism that permeates so much of our society, nor for opposing Israel's occupation of Palestine and violent repression of Palestinians.

What is "no platform"?

No-platforming is a tactic adopted originally against fascist organisations. It means doing everything we can to deny a specified group any platform to organise, build themselves, or act. This could mean everything from turning over a street stall, to disrupting a meeting, to denying them an invitation to speak in a student society event. It also includes refusing, again as a blanket rule, to ever have representatives of your organisation or movement share a platform with that group.

We support this not because fascist ideas cross some arbitrary line of being too distressing or offensive to be heard. Instead, we are committed to no platform as a physical self-defence tactic - part of a militant anti-fascist strategy. Fascist groups are an organised movement of physical violence in the streets, fighting to terrorise, crush, and ultimately murder oppressed groups, the workers' movement and the left. Antifascists are forced to respond by doing whatever we can to disrupt fascists and their efforts.

Opposition to Hen Mazzig

The first motion up for debate is entitled “Opposing Hen Mazzig event and defending students' rights to organise on campus. Mazzig is a former Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) officer in the COGAT unit, which oversees many civilian aspects of the occupation of Palestinian territories. He is now a writer and touring speaker who propagandises for Israel's occupation policies. When he was invited to speak by UCL Friends of Israel students last year, the union refused permission for the event, prompting the university to step in and facilitate the meeting. Palestine liberation activists protested the event, and the situation became confrontational, with anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism allegedly being thrown back at the protestors.

Now Mazzig is set to be invited back and the university will again facilitate it. This motion proposes that we protest against Mazzig and the occupation he is defending, but it also says that we should condemn the university for allowing him to speak at all. It should go without saying that we are implacably opposed to the occupation and the violent repression of Palestinians, we support the Palestinians' right to resistance (including the use of violence in self-defence against the Israeli state) and we want to combat support for the occupation with protest as well as debate. But we cannot agree with this policy.

The motion justifies it on the basis that Mazzig's appearance "has previously caused a hostile reaction by a large number of the student body", "causes abrasion within the student body and "will again throw UCL into disrepute".

When rent campaigners highlighted UCL managers' disregard for poorer students, that brought UCL into disrepute. When students occupied against tuition fee rises in 2010, we provoked a deeply hostile and confrontational response from a number of right-wing students. When feminist students stand up for abortion rights, we invite controversy and protest from anti-abortion campaigners. When students protested the previous Provost for his pro-fees advocacy and his side-job privatising the NHS, they faced disciplinary action. Socialists and fighters against oppression are, by the very nature of our causes, controversial, subversive and disreputable - and we are proud to be!

It is extremely dangerous to set the precedents that controversy and disrepute are grounds to deny free speech, and that university bosses are the legitimate gatekeepers of debate. We cannot lean on our bosses to combat bigoted, conservative ideas with top-down authoritarian measures. They are not defenders of the oppressed or champions of progressive causes and cannot be set up as our "protectors". In the end, it will be our causes that suffer most.

We saw a hint of what could be to come when elected union officers cited the risk of controversy when they tried to bar Macer Gifford, a former Kurdish freedom fighter against ISIS, from speaking (this shameful move was subsequently overturned by student pressure).

The motion also argues that Mazzig is a threatening and intimidating presence on campus. Here, clarity is essential. Mazzig does not have a record of assaulting his political opponents on his speaker tours. He is not a risk to the physical safety of students. While distress and anxiety are real, this distinction should not be blurred.

No platform policy

The second motion more generally extends the union's no-platform policy from fascists to "affiliates and representatives of military forces carrying out apartheid including but not limited to the Israeli Defence Force", "apartheid supporting organisations" and "any other organisations that support racism". We believe it is the wrong move to apply this tactic beyond organisations who try to build a physical combat presence on UK streets (like National Action or the EDL), to organisations or individuals whose mode of operation here is political rather than militaristic. (Obviously the IDF and all states and militaries conduct themselves through physical force, but no-platforming a political representative of those forces here in the UK has no clear relation to meaningfully disrupting violent military operations in Palestine - physically combating their political supporters, as the motion also proposes to do, even less).

Freedom of speech and the right to organise and protest on campuses is under a wide array of attacks right now - most of them coming from the government, university bosses, and right-wing union bureaucrats, and hitting left-wingers and oppressed minorities. The Prevent policy mandates intrusive racist surveillance of Muslims and creates a chilling effect on dissent. The Charity Commission and the government are cracking down on the rights of student unions and trade unions to speak up. Marketising, privsatising reforms are restricting academic freedom in education and research. Many university bosses, keen to foster a squeaky-clean, controversy-avoidant corporate image, enable the smooth running of for-profit businesses, and suppress effective political action by students and staff, are tearing down political posters, introducing layers of bureaucracy for organising events, and intimidating and disciplining those who speak up. And student union bureaucrats have been caught shutting down left-wing and liberatory politics - from our own officers who tried to stop a Kurdish freedom fighter speaking, to Teesside SU banning discussion of free education!

The only way we can possibly beat these attacks is building a widespread consensus in favour of free speech and free debate. Right now, our opponents are getting away with these attacks partly because too much of the student movement has abandoned a principled defence of political freedoms on campus. In fact, some of them have managed to hypocritically proclaim themselves the defenders of freedom! We are ill-equipped to call them out, or to convince anyone of our own right to open discussion, if we are inconsistent and are simultaneously demanding our own regulations of which ideas can and cannot be expressed.

Changing ideas

The left and struggles for liberation exist precisely because reactionary ideas are not marginal but dominant across society, and the powers-that-be are on the side not of the oppressed, but the oppressors. Because reactionary ideas are dominant, changing hearts and minds - billions of them - is completely essential to changing the world. There are no bureaucratic shortcuts here - no regulation or speaker policy can change the political ideas in someone's head. We can only do that through political methods - discussion, debate and protest.

And because, as we said above, the powers-that-be are on the side of the status quo, and the oppressors not the oppressed, we need free speech more than them. Space to spread and argue radical, controversial and subversive ideas is as vital as oxygen to any left-wing liberatory movement. But if it becomes acceptable to suppress free speech, who do you think our government will shut down first? Apologists for the occupation, or those who fight for Palestinian freedom? Advocates of their racist border regime, or migrant rights activists? Employers who perpetuate gender and racial pay gaps, or the women and BME trade unionists confronting them?

One common criticism of this position is that debating convinced, ingrained reactionaries like Hen Mazzig is pointless, because they won't be turned. But the main targets we are trying to convince are not necessarily the speakers we're debating, but the audience. When we debate our opponents, we reach people who would never otherwise hear us, who might come to the debate sympathetic to them but can be won over. We cannot afford to dismiss or give up on those people, or our causes will forever remain marginalised minorities.

Moreover, consider how broadly this motion seeks to apply the tactic of no-platform. In a society where reactionary ideas are in power and we are a fighting minority, it is wildly impractical to imagine we could defeat the dominant ideas through denial of platforms, when they control most of the biggest platforms! The motion proposes to no-platform all supporters of racism. We would argue that support for border controls - which discriminate between humans on the basis of where we were born - is support for racism. Will we attempt to shut down everyone who doesn't yet agree with our call for the abolition of borders? Will we shut down the student Conservative Society and ban Tory speakers because of their party's support for Prevent, among other racist policies? And if racism, why not other forms of oppression - will we shut down the Catholic Society and ban representatives of the Church because of the immensely damaging sexism, homophobia and transphobia that its doctrines promote? Even if we wanted to, is this a remotely achievable tactic?

In particular, it is striking and ironic to see some campus Palestine activists back this approach, just days after UCL Friends of Palestine were criticised for inviting Azzam Tamimi, who is a supporter of the anti-Semitic Hamas and undeniably an anti-Semite himself: e.g. telling the children of Jewish refugees, born in Tel Aviv, to "go back" to Germany. Which racists count for this no-platform policy?

Double standards for Israel

The singling out of Israel and its supporters and citizens demands a look. The motion does say that any other supporters of apartheid should be treated in same way too. But it is only Israel that is commonly described as operating "apartheid". We agree that the crimes of the Israeli state are profound and indefensible, but we don't agree that "apartheid" is a useful or accurate description of what Israel is doing. It is used to present Israel's crimes as if they were unique in the present day, in order to justify treatment not advocated for any other state. But sadly, whether you call them "apartheid" or not, its crimes are not unique in their immensity. All over the world, states are carrying out murderous policies of occupation, repression and discrimination: Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara, China in Tibet, Russia in Chechnya, to name a few. Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey have conducted decades of racist bloodshed to deny freedom to the Kurds. These policies are not described as "apartheid", but they are not less grave crimes than Israel's, and in some cases have killed even more people than Israel has.

There is nothing wrong with focussing your campaigning on particular injustices - nobody can do everything and "whataboutery"; helps no cause - but standards and the approaches we support need to be consistent and justifiable. If not, it becomes necessary to ask why a standard is being applied that treats Israel as if it were unique.

What next?

We call on Union Council members to vote against these motions. And we are submitting a motion to the next Union General Assembly on 5 December to defend free speech and the freedom to organise politically on campus - not only from over-extended no-platform policies, but from the even bigger threats posed by the government and university managers. General Assemblies are open for all students to debate and vote - please come along on 5 December to debate this and other vital issues facing us.

This article draws on material published by the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts that can be found at anticuts.com/righttoorganise

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