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Steve Turnbull
November 2016.
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Is it better to debate right wing extremists or no-platform them?
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There are things to say on both sides of this question. The argument against debating right-wing extremists is that the more we give these parties visibility the more chance there is of their becoming attractive to more people – even bad publicity is publicity. The argument in favour is that a lot of far-right parties' support comes from people not knowing exactly what the parties stand for, and exposing their true nature, of violence or corruption, might impact negatively on them. Here I’m not necessarily talking about the UK but of countries like Greece, which has the Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party. There’s also the question of education: bringing the debate forward means citizens can learn more about what they’re voting for, can hear both sides, and then they might go for the more moderate option. 

In some cases, there is talk of banning a party by law. You can’t ban UKIP, for example, but you can consider banning neo-Nazi parties in Germany or the Golden Dawn, some of whose elected members of parliament are on trial for murder and inciting racial hatred. Should we ban them, when seven or eight percent of the Greek population votes for them? The argument against it, which I think I agree with, is that they will just come back with another name or find legal leeways. 

"There’s also the question of education: bringing the debate forward means citizens can learn more about what they’re voting for, can hear both sides, and then they might go for the more moderate option."

Like the alcohol prohibition in the USA in the 1920s, it’s likely to have the opposite effect, which brings me to the more mild way of no-platforming, as in not allowing parties to debate rather than legally banning them. I think again it’s going to have an adverse effect. Populist parties tend to use no-platforming in their favour, saying, “We stand for freedom and these people are shutting us up, they’re the intolerant ones.” In a liberal democracy you’re going to have some voices that you don’t like; this is what pluralism is. 

This raises another fundamental point: free media is the cornerstone of free speech, which is the cornerstone of a liberal democracy, but the paradox is that at the moment free media is putting forward rhetoric that isn’t itself free. Maybe people’s opinions can be heard freely but there’s an incredible amount of very distorted information, both in social media and mainstream media, that has been passed on as true. You need to have freedom of speech in a democracy, but you need some regulations, at least for information. 

"Maybe people’s opinions can be heard freely but there’s an incredible amount of very distorted information, both in social media and mainstream media, that has been passed on as true."

It’s an unpopular view, but I do think that the problem here is not only with the right wing but also the left. That’s not a normative statement – I’m not choosing one side or another – it’s an analytical statement, but both sides are populist. They’re also highly nationalistic – all you have to do is look at Greece and France to see the extremes they share in terms of nationalism. They also use a lot of post-truth, populist, anti-elite rhetoric – just look at Greece again – to put their ideas forward.

Whichever side it comes from, the way forward is to practice debate but we also need to step up the quality of debate. For that, we need long-term reforms and better education, not only in terms of the level but of what is actually taught. We need people to be more knowledgeable so they can participate in debates. I don’t think the solution is to ban people from talking.