Why Dapper Laughs is not the same as Charlie Hebdo

by Sam Fowles

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre everybody wants to remind us that they support free speech.

But the new vogue for Article 10 has its drawbacks. Mehdi Hasan calls them “free speech fundamentalists”. I’d call them apologists for racism, sexism and homophobia, but I lack Mehdi’s pith. These people equate the denial of a platform (often for the most extreme and offensive views) with the denial of the right to free expression. Brendan O’Neill of Spiked.com argues that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was a more violent symptom of a general intolerance for free speech which stretches across Europe. Mr O’Neill was one of those scheduled to speak at the Oxford University abortion event blackballed for not including a single woman on its panel. He cites social media campaigns against Dapper Laughs and Page Three of The Sun as evidence for his theory. Spiked has even starting its own campaign, “Free Speech Now”. In the Times Education Supplement Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas, argues that policies like NUS’s “No Platform”, which bans individuals who are racist, misogynist, or homophobic from speaking at member institutions, represent an attack on freedom of speech.

Mehdi is astute to point out that the right to freedom of speech does not create a duty to be offensive. But there is a more important distinction to be drawn: “Expression” (which is a right) is not the same as “platform” (which is a privilege). Having a right to free speech means that one cannot be punished for one’s expression or coerced into changing that which one chooses to express. The obvious caveat is the prohibition against using one’s expression to incite violence against others (In much the same way that one can’t use one’s freedom of movement to commit violent acts). This is different from having a platform. While freedom of expression requires protecting all individuals equally against coercion, the issue of platform revolves around questions of who gets to use their freedom of expression from a more privileged position than others.

Platform is valuable commodity and the supply of privileged platforms far outstrips demand. A spot on Newsnight, a column in the New York Times or a Channel 4 show will allow one to speak to a much larger audience than, for example, a student radio show, a letter to the local paper or a home movie. This is precisely because very few people have the former while almost everyone has, at some point, availed themselves of one of the latter.

This means that giving one individual or party a particular platform inevitably means denying that platform to many others. The more valuable the platform the more parties are inevitably denied access.

When protestors objected to the debate on abortion at Oxford it was because, in selecting an all-male panel, Oxford Students for Life had effectively denied women access to their platform. Protestors (understandably) felt that the event, on an issue that primarily (albeit not exclusively) affects women, lacked legitimacy when it denied women a voice on its platform. Putting “On The Pull With Dapper Laughs” on air meant that any number of other shows were denied that platform.

“No platform” campaigns, like that in Oxford or against “On The Pull”, rarely say “he should not be allowed to air his views”. That’s not the point. They say “why has he been given that platform?” This isn’t an exceptional question. The justification for “no platform” campaigns lies, not in censoriousness, but in an attempt to raise the standard of debate. One rarely sees “no platform” campaigns against experts in their field (no matter how radical their views) and no one is advocating dropping page three of National Geographic. “No platform” campaigns tend to target individuals or organisations who, fundamentally, attempt to convey the message that women, homosexuals or people of a different race or religion are, not only inferior, but should somehow be punished for their inferiority. Not only are these views unoriginal, they are rarely backed up by anything more substantial than misunderstood statistics and prejudice. It’s not unreasonable for campaigners to ask for someone reasonable, well qualified, expert, original or funny instead. Similarly when, in a nation of more than ten major ethnic groups and multiple genders, yet another privileged platform is given to middle aged white men, it’s not unreasonable argue that the organisers should do better. Mr O’Neill isn’t a doctor, a public health professional or recognised ethicist. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that people objected to OSL’s decision to deny a platform to someone better qualified (or just someone with uterus) in his favour.

Put another way, if Dapper Laughs wants to take a soap box down to Hyde Park Corner and moan about the demise of his broadcasting career, that’s his right. But if I want to argue that something better should be on TV, I have a right to free speech too.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and the University if Sydney. He blogs for the Huffington Post and tweets at @SamFowles


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7 Responses to “Why Dapper Laughs is not the same as Charlie Hebdo”

  1. Saying something that is racist, isn’t neccasarily glorifying it when saying it, defending aomeines right to say something allegedly racist, or clearly if it aspires bigotry, isn’t being an apologist for it,

    And Islam isn’t a race, Hasans I’ll thought out article, was mixing both inciting hatred, with not having respect too use pictures /language that agave been pointed out are offensive, Muslims themselves in the last 200 years don’t like pictures of Monammed, so Charlie knew this and still put them, knowing it would cause offence.
    If I was too take the bible or the Korans, scriptures point out in their cases they’ve had words like “no man shall lay with another man”etc, and that christian fundamentalists have used this to base their Homohpobia on it, I could point out to Quote Peter Mandleson, that fining homosexuality immoral, is an acceptable Christine view, but in both Christianity and Islam, to take a view you find something ,wrong,and then to base violence and hatred on that view are wrong, and it would be acceptable and not anti christian, or islamaphobia to knock both the bible and the Koran and there readers, for letting those sentences be misinterpreted to incite violence.

  2. I think the real point is the hypocrisy of peole who would censor Dapper, but at the same time, want to promote the likes Of Krn livingstone, inviting, homophobic, sexist Muslim ,anti semetic preachers, who dress up their bigotry, in that they themselves are victims of islamaphobia

  3. Edward says:

    You clearly articulate the distinction between denial of free speech and denial of a platform. However, I disagree with you on two points:

    1) Denying someone a platform can become a (partial) denial of their free speech if they are shut out from enough platforms. The BBC, for instance, has such a dominance of this country’s media that it could severely restrict the number of people who encounter a certain point of view if it denied platforms to anyone articulating that view. Similarly, a pro-choice campaign at a university could severely curtail the expression of the pro-life argument if it succeeded in shutting that view out of all students societies, debates and newspapers.

    2) It’s very odd to say that by choosing two male speakers, Oxford Students for Life effectively ‘denied women access to their platform’. If a political party chose a female leader, would you say that it had ‘denied men the chance to lead the party’?

  4. Richard says:

    Wow – this guy is a researcher and has given an almost incoherent argument for a number of ever shifting positions. Proof positive that appeals to recognised authorities is not the criterion for selecting speakers. Indeed, it is interesting how someone working in the field of politics could understand so little about the concepts of our basic liberties and still less about formulating a compelling argument.

    The idea that the value of what someone has to say on an issue could be affected by the content of their lower abdomen is as absurd as thinking it could be determined by their skin colour.

    The policy sometimes being defended in this article is that one group in the NUS can decide what are acceptable views and put out a blanket ban on individuals for thinking the wrong thing. Individual debating societies aren’t to be trusted in deciding for themselves who might be an interesting speaker. That’s interesting – not ‘someone we already agree with’. It’s funny, because when they leave the union and go to the classroom, they’ll be expected to discuss more than one side of the argument. As if doing so might be educational and improve the strength of ones own arguments.

  5. Sam says:

    “The idea that the value of what someone has to say on an issue could be affected by the content of their lower abdomen is as absurd as thinking it could be determined by their skin colour.”

    Well you might receive a few complaints if, for example, one was to hold a debate on the legacy of Jim Crow for the African American community, affirmative action or mandatory minimums without including a single person of colour…

    Edward, your point is interesting but my overriding point was that the BBC inevitably denies hundreds of people its platform every day. Whether or not someone has a platform is entirely unrellated to their Art. 10 right. One is a right and the other is a privilage.

  6. Gabriel Asman says:

    The distinction between platform and free speech is indeed important However, when the author says :

    “Protestors (understandably) felt that the event, on an issue that primarily (albeit not exclusively) affects women, lacked legitimacy when it denied women a voice on its platform.”

    what he forgets to mention is that the protesters were not members of the society that organized the debate, and thus, being in no way affiliated with “Oxford Students for Life”, didn’t have any ownership of this platform. That’s like saying that if I give a platform to X in my backyard then I’m denying everyone else a platform. Maybe, but you could hardly justify a protest, right? And the claim that in this case the platform is the room in college where the debate was held is also quite shaky. I’m a student at Oxford, there isn’t an unlimited supply of rooms but it’s if you book a week in advance you can easily get a room for a society event at one college or another.

  7. Ex Labour says:

    You lost me at the words “Mehdi Hasan”. If you think referencing this clown gives your argument some credibility – think again.

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