no platform or no democracy?

new statesman, 6 september 1996

Are black people less intelligent than whites? And should people be censored for saying they are? These were the twin themes of a discussion that should have taken place in Edinburgh last month, when the city's Cyberia Internet cafe invited Marek Kohn, author of The Race Gallery, and me to debate with the Edinburgh University psychologist Christopher Brand. Brand hit the headlines earlier this year when his book The g-Factor was withdrawn by its publisher, John Wiley, after the author described himself as a 'scientific racist'. Brand considers himself a disciple of Francis Galton, the 19th-century eugenicist. For Brand, intelligence is a natural property, and different social and racial groups possess different amounts of the stuff.

The debate, unfortunately, went the way of the book: after the local Anti-Nazi League threatened to disrupt the meeting, it was cancelled. According to the ANL, its actions had denied Brand a platform for his racist views. Otherwise, one of the protest organisers explained, people might have gone away believing what he said. This suggests a striking lack of confidence in the ANL's ability to persuade an audience to an alternative viewpoint, not to mention a certain contempt for people's capacity to consider the evidence rationally. It also illustrates the increasingly fraught nature of the debate about the limits of free speech in a pluralist society.

The notion that there should be restrictions on what may be said about race is a specifically postwar idea. The experience of Nazism and the Holocaust persuaded western policy-makers that certain forms of racial argument were taboo. In most western nations the taboos were institutionalised through race relations or the civil rights legislation of the sixties and seventies.

The radical equivalent of such legislation was the strategy of 'no platform for racists and fascists' which emerged in the late seventies. There has always been an ambiguity about policies which made an offence of incitement to racial hatred, or which tried to deny a platform for racists and fascists: the concern for greater equality and freedom for black people sat uneasily with demands for restrictions on free speech. For many, including myself, freedom demands that we struggle for an extension of both equality and free expression, not regard one as inimical to the other. But as long as racial offences were clearly defined, and the proscribed groups and sentiments clearly delineated, they were accepted. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a relatively coherent set of values to which most people adhered and, within limits, there was agreement as to what could be tolerated in racial discourse.

In the past decade, however, the crumbling of the postwar order has brought a disintegration of consensus. In the search for new forms of moral consensus, the definition of what is 'intolerable' has become elastic and the balance between extending particular freedoms (such as those of black people) and restricting universal rights (such as free expression) has tilted decisively in favour of the former. In the guise of defending the rights of women, gays or black people, the growth of 'politically correct' codes of conduct has greatly enlarged the scope of what is branded taboo or offensive.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in academia. Without wishing to romanticise college life as it used to be, the idea of the university in the past was as a privileged space for open intellectual discussion and debate. In practice, of course, academia could be a very narrow-minded, intolerant place; but rhetorically at least, there was a greater openness to ideas that else where might have been considered taboo.

Over the past few years a sea change has taken place. Rather than promoting themselves as vehicles for broadening access to discussion and debate, universities now seek to present themselves as highly regulated institutions in which students will be protected from unsolicited or offensive ideas. Virtually every university today has a code of practice governing how students may behave to each other and to lecturers, and what they may reasonably say or write in conversation, meetings and essays. According to Lancaster University's code of practice on racial and sexual harassment, for instance, racial harassment can occur even if offence is not intended; its defining feature is that it is 'offensive to and unwanted by the recipient'. In other words, harassment is what you want it to be.

In this extension of the intolerable, the scope of no platform for racists also becomes wider. Today, for instance, the main target for no-platform policies in universities is not the British National Party or other fascist groups, but Hizb ut-Tahrir, a tiny Islamic sect with support in a few colleges, mainly in London. Denouncing the group as an extremist organisation, the National Union of Students has conducted a campaign to have Hizb ut-Tahrir banned from all campuses on the grounds that it incites racial hatred.

Hizb ut-Tahrir certainly has odious views on Jews, Hindus, gays and women. But to compare it to the BNP is absurd. It has won respect and support among some young Asians because, at a time when western society is experiencing a virulent anti-Muslim backlash, it seems willing to stand up for the dignity of their communities. Extending the meaning of incitement to racial hatred to include the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir is to demean the real experience of racism, while posting new restrictions on all our rights to free expression.

Even previously 'legitimate' academic debate is now often deemed offensive, as the Brand affair illustrates. Brand's arguments sit squarely in an intellectual tradition that includes Hans Eysenck, Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray. To the postwar liberal generation, the arguments of these writers may seem unpalatable or misguided. But surely such writers have every right to raise questions about orthodox assumptions on race and intelligence, and to answer them in the way they think fit? Yet the Scottish Council for Civil Liberties (an organisation which one might have assumed would be hostile to censorship) called for The g-Factor to be banned on the grounds that 'we would not expect any publisher knowingly to publish an inaccurate or false book.' It is an argument that publishers are taking to heart. St Martin's Press recently backed out of its contract to publish a biography of Goebbels by the right-wing historian David Irving; and John Wiley has refused to publish Arthur Jensen's new work on intelligence.

How can we establish the distinction between truth and falsehood without open debate? Those who would censor Brand have the undoubtedly unintended effect of making it much more difficult to answer him. The corrosive nature of censorship on intellectual debate and the increasingly restricted nature of our freedoms are illustrated by the transformation of our universities in recent years. It is not simply in academia that this process is taking place. A similar debate about the relationship between rights and freedom is being fought out in cyberspace. The seen as a privileged space free from restriction and censorship. In some ways it is - largely because of its anarchic nature and relative marginalisation from mainstream society. But as cyberspace becomes more central to our lives, so there are greater moves to control and regulate it.

In America, the Communications Decency Act, which would have made it an offence to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass anyone on the Internet, points to the regulation to come. Although the act has been declared unconstitutional by the courts, there are new moves to restrict access to cyberspace for racist groups and those propagating hate speech. In Britain, organisations such as the ANL, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Anti-Racist Action have argued for the banning of racist newsgroups. Again, this is a debate about how far free expression can go in a pluralist society. We can only hope for a more rational answer than that which is now found on university campuses; that equality and free speech are seen not as antagonistic claims, but as two necessary elements of a freer society.