Having introduced epistemic grounds for avoiding no-platforming, we shall now apply them in a critical discussion of three recent epistemic arguments in favor of the policy. The authors that we will discuss aren’t claiming that an across-the-board policy of no-platforming problematic speakers would be epistemically beneficial—they agree that there are particular instances of no-platforming that have bad veritistic consequences, and, of course, they agree that non-epistemic, for instance, moral reasons against/for the policy might override epistemic concerns. Rather, the authors’ focus is (as the textual evidence below shows) on the following existential claim:
Even though no-platforming might be problematic in many cases, there are at least some other cases (beyond those from Sect. 2) in which principled epistemic considerations speak in favor of the policy such that no-platforming is epistemically justified or at least strongly supported (due to its increasing rather than decreasing net epistemic goods) in these cases.
We will argue that this existential claim hasn’t been established in the literature so far. We hold that, given the points made in the preceding section, the three arguments below don’t (individually or combined) offer a conclusive justification or strong epistemic support for the no-platforming of problematic speakers in each of the cases that advocates of the arguments focus on. For, in each of these cases, the epistemic costs of no-platforming and (correlatively) the epistemic benefits of avoiding the policy that we mentioned in the preceding section would need to be weighed against the epistemic benefits of using no-platforming that the arguments mention. But this hasn’t happened yet. All three arguments remain thus inconclusive on the existential claim that they involve.
The argument from misleading higher-order evidence
Levy (2019a, 2019b) maintains that a speaker’s invitation to talk in an academic setting provides other people who learn about the invitation with “higher-order evidence” pertaining to the speaker’s testimony that p. Specifically, an invitation to speak in such settings confers credibility on a speaker, Levy holds, because it selects this individual from other potential speakers as the one whose utterances deserve a hearing. This increase in credibility varies with the range of potential selectees and the venue’s prestige. But since most academic settings tend to be relatively exclusive, the fact that a speaker has been selected to speak in such a setting itself provides her audience with evidence that her testimony constitutes good evidence. On this basis, Levy offers an epistemic argument for no-platforming on some occasions: “If someone is likely to speak in favor 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 favor of that view”, and this is, given the falsity of the view, “misleading” (2019a: p. 2). “[S]ometimes, at least, this consideration will be weighty enough to justify refusing to provide speakers with a platform”, Levy (2019a: p. 3) concludes.
In a subsequent paper, he (2019b: p. 500) opts for a more modest view, holding that the generation of misleading higher-order evidence merely provides a “powerful consideration in favor of” no-platforming on some occasions. He grants that on any occasion his consideration on higher-order evidence might be outweighed by the “indirect” epistemic consideration that allowing a platform to a problematic speaker may “inculcate habits in the audience that will stand them in good epistemic stead in the future” (ibid: 489). Still, Levy concludes that his point does “show that we may support refusing a platforming to a particular speaker on a particular occasion without abandoning the legacy of the Enlightenment” (ibid: 500), which is earlier in the text identified with purely epistemic values (ibid: 490).
Thus, while in (2019a), Levy clearly commits to the existential claim we mentioned above, in his (2019b), he commits to the weaker claim that—if we focus only on “direct” epistemic considerations such as those pertaining to the generation of higher-order evidence—the no-platforming of a problematic speaker is sometimes justified pro tanto. We assume that Levy would uphold this claim even for some speakers not excluded by our considerations in Sect. 2. After all, “those that paint themselves as heirs of the Enlightenment” (Levy, 2019b: p. 488) would hardly put up much of a fight for such speakers, and Levy’s arguments are explicitly targeted at this group. We will now present reasons to doubt that he has established even this weaker claim.Footnote 17
Notice first that while Levy’s arguments draw support from the evidentialist literature on disagreement as evidence (see, e.g., 2019b: pp. 493–500), they ultimately rely on a consequentialist framework. After all, for Levy, the perceived problem with misleading evidence isn’t its mere existence, but rather that it tends to lead audiences into adopting false beliefs on issues of interest to them, thus promoting an epistemically bad outcome. And, as we saw, he regards “direct” and “indirect” epistemic considerations as fully commensurable where the latter are defined in terms of long-range consequences (the inculcation of epistemically beneficial habits).
With this in place, we may now see that no matter whether we focus on his (2019a) strong or his (2019b) weaker claim, Levy’s argument remains inconclusive, since it doesn’t factor in the “direct” epistemic considerations against no-platforming we introduced above. This is because epistemically detrimental higher-order evidence doesn’t emerge only when universities invite problematic speakers but also when they no-platform them. For, as argued in Sect. 4, all else being equal, the exclusion of problematic speakers from universities (to give talks) decreases authentic dissent and the scope of diverse social criticism in academia, which, in turn, reduces academics’ and students’ (i) skill in confronting these speakers, and (ii) awareness of the basis of their own shared assumptions. This makes these assumptions less likely to be exposed to scrutiny than otherwise and so detracts from the reliability of the belief formation at the university that adopts no-platforming. To the extent that a no-platforming practice indicates a reduction of viewpoint diversity, its occurrence at a university thus itself provides higher-order evidence against the scientific and other first-order evidence produced at that university. This is epistemically costly, not least if this higher-order evidence misleadingly suggests the university’s first-order evidence is misleading.
To be sure, Levy primarily focuses on cases where we already know a speaker’s view to be false or wrong (2019a: p. 2). It might thus seem that with respect to the cases relevant for his argument, no-platforming is unlikely to produce any kind of misleading higher-order evidence: The excluded speakers are, qua advocates of false or wrong views, unlikely to yield epistemic benefits.
However, if these cases are still controversial instances of no-platforming then they are likely to concern morally and/or politically sensitive views. And as argued above, there is empirical ground to suspect that with respect to these views in particular, motivated cognition is especially likely to skew our opinion on the falsity or wrongness of the views at issue. That is, in the most interesting cases of no-platforming, we have empirical grounds to believe that our opinions on the falsity or wrongness of controversial views are less reliable than they may seem. The proposal that no-platforming produces epistemically harmful higher-order evidence against academic belief formation by reducing authentic dissent and social criticism can thus not be easily dismissed by holding that the views no-platformed are already known to be false or wrong and hence epistemically unhelpful.Footnote 18
Indeed, the data on motivated cognition help strengthen the thought that no-platforming produces pernicious higher-order evidence in the cases Levy focuses on, yielding what he (2019b: p. 500) calls a “direct” epistemic consideration that pertains to no-platforming but now speaks against the policy. For suppose that the more controversial a case of no-platforming is, the higher the likelihood that it implicates morally or politically sensitive views. If so, then, given the mentioned data, the more controversial the case of no-platforming is, the higher the likelihood that politically motivated cognition affects decisions on no-platforming, and so the stronger the plausibility of the charge of a politicization of academic judgment- and decision-making. Since evidence of such politicization is itself higher-order evidence against the reliability of academic judgment- and decision-making, the data that suggest a more pronounced confirmation bias and motivated cognition in reasoning about controversial issues (e.g., Taber & Lodge, 2006) corroborate the thought that no-platforming produces epistemically harmful higher-order evidence.
Given this, for Levy’s (2019a: p. 3) argument to “justify”, or “provide a powerful [pro tanto] consideration in favor” of no-platforming on particular occasions (2019b: p. 487), the epistemic costs of generating misleading higher-order evidence pertaining to the relevant speakers’ testimony will, on those occasions, need to outweigh the epistemic costs of generating higher-order evidence against the reliability of academic belief formation (due to diminished viewpoint diversity and potential politicization). Otherwise, the point at issue is hardly a “powerful” consideration in favor of no-platforming, even when we only consider “direct” epistemic considerations. Yet, Levy hasn’t weighed up the points at issue, and it isn’t obvious that once this is done, his conclusions are supported. So, while we agree that the risk of generating misleading higher-order evidence should be taken into account when deciding on no-platforming, Levy’s argument leaves it unclear, even in the situations he focuses on, whether this consideration provides a strong or weak epistemic reason for no-platforming a problematic speaker.
The argument from preserving disciplinary knowledge
Simpson and Srinivasan (2018: p. 186) argue that “no-platforming should be acceptable to liberals, in principle, in cases where it is used to support a university culture that maintains rigorous disciplinary standards, by denying attention and credibility to speakers who fall short of those standards”. Specifically, Simpson and Srinivasan hold that the pursuit of knowledge at universities, in contrast to discussions in the public sphere, requires an inequality of ideas and practices that separate true ideas from false ones. Thus, the standards of expertise that govern university level teaching and research support no-platforming because: (a) “no experts within the university would be restricted in their teaching or research practice” by “the exclusion” of such speakers, and (b) sometimes no-platforming them is needed for the “promotion of disciplinary knowledge” and the “upholding of disciplinary standards” (ibid: 186). Importantly, Simpson and Srinivasan maintain that whenever disciplinary controversies are resolved, then there are “axiomatic commitments” that define communities of competent inquirers in a discipline and provide the basis for legitimate no-platforming. For instance, in
gender studies the moral permissibility of homosexuality is a settled question—one of the axiomatic premises that sets a foundation for the kind of inquiry that scholars in this discipline undertake. Anyone who wanted to argue against the moral permissibility of homosexuality would be setting themselves outside the axioms that define the field of gender studies. (Simpson & Srinivasan, 2018: p. 203)
The no-platforming of speakers who argue against such axioms thus aligns with principles to promote disciplinary knowledge and expertise, Simpson and Srinivasan hold. The remaining controversy is then only “about who gets to decide which views are disciplinary axioms, such that dissenting voices can be excluded, not in violation of principles of academic freedom, but […] in a way that is partly backed by those principles [emphasis original]” (Simpson & Srinivasan, 2018: p. 204). Hence, “[p]rinciples of academic freedom […] positively support the exclusion of speakers and viewpoints for content-based […] reasons. These exclusions are justified, indeed, they are necessary, in order for researchers and teachers to uphold disciplinary standards” (ibid: 205). So, Simpson and Srinivasan argue:
Some problematic speakers are disciplinarily incompetent by virtue of rejecting disciplinary axioms.
The no-platforming of these speakers (i) doesn’t restrict experts’ teaching or research practice, but rather (ii) promotes disciplinary knowledge and standards.
Given (1)-(2), the no-platforming of these speakers is justifiable by appeal to the university’s epistemic goals.
Simpson and Srinivasan clearly commit to the existential claim that there are some controversial cases of potential no-platforming when epistemic considerations justify no-platforming, namely cases in which we have a problematic speaker who is disciplinarily incompetent in that they reject disciplinary axioms. How plausible is this view?
Point (2) (i) of Simpson and Srinivasan’s argument is problematic especially if we keep in mind the epistemic value of authentic dissent for teaching and research. For suppose you are a disciplinary expert and want your students to improve their analytical abilities and disciplinary self-awareness by critiquing your discipline’s axioms. If, by the university’s decision, all problematic speakers questioning those axioms were no-platformed, this would interfere with your teaching goals. For, as argued above, confronting a teacher who is playing the devil’s advocate and so mimicking a dissenter is less epistemically useful compared to confronting an authentic dissenter, especially when the view defended contradicts the teacher’s own commitments such as her disciplinary axioms. Hence, while Simpson and Srinivasan’s argument rests on the idea that the authority of academics to teach and research should be preserved, their rationale for no-platforming seems in tension with this very idea, at least if the academics don’t themselves make the no-platforming decisions.
Of course, academic teachers might in some cases as an exercise of their institutional authority want to shut down talks by invited speakers, thinking that this is most conducive to the realization of educational aims. But as noted, studies suggest that when we are considering morally or politically controversial views, motivated cognition is likely to skew our opinion on the falsity or wrongness of them. If so, then academics’ judgments on whether it would be conducive to students to be exposed to certain views might in fact be less reliable than these academics themselves take them to be. Indeed, given what we know about motivated cognition, academics might in each case at issue form decisions on no-platforming of axiom skeptics that in fact inadvertently contradict their own teaching goals. That is, it is be no means clear that in such cases academics’ conscious decisions on no-platforming would capture the kind of teaching goals that the academics themselves endorse. It remains an open question whether the no-platforming of axiom skeptics, in each of the relevant cases, does or does not restrict experts’ teaching or research practice. Simpson and Srinivasan’s point (2) (i) thus isn’t yet established.Footnote 19
As for Simpson and Srinivasan’s point (2) (ii), there is reason to believe that the no-platforming of axiom skeptics wouldn’t promote but reduce disciplinary knowledge and standards. For suppose that in the discipline of gender studies the moral permissibility of homosexuality is axiomatic and that, as recommended by Simpson and Srinivasan, axiom dissenters are excluded from giving academic talks in the discipline. At university, gender studies students and faculty will then not be able to confront authentic advocates of the view that homosexuality is morally impermissible. This (to reiterate a by now familiar thought) reduces their chance of developing strong arguments against it. The no-platforming of axiom skeptics thus makes it less likely that students and experts within a given discipline acquire the skill to defend their most basic disciplinary assumptions convincingly.
In sum, we grant that in some cases no-platforming might be justified by the epistemic goals of a university. These are, for instance, the cases that we mentioned in Sect. 2 and take to be uncontroversial. But Simpson and Srinivasan focus (more interestingly) on a much broader group of speakers, namely individuals who are deemed disciplinarily incompetent in that they reject disciplinary axioms. While Simpson and Srinivasan maintain that no-platforming these speakers is epistemically justified, we argued that the policy might in these cases restrict experts’ teaching practice, or teaching goal-achievement (e.g., when motivated cognition interferes with academics’ rational capacities) and reduce disciplinary knowledge and standards in ways that Simpson and Srinivasan haven’t yet factored in. Hence, while Simpson and Srinivasan hold that there are some cases in which principles of academic freedom epistemically justify the no-platforming of speakers (i.e., disciplinarily incompetent, axiom skeptics), this existential claim is insufficiently supported. We currently can’t tell whether, in these cases, no-platforming maximizes or decreases the net epistemic goods that Simpson and Srinivasan highlight, as the relevant costs and benefits haven't been weighed up against each other yet.Footnote 20
The argument from generating false moral beliefs
Fantl (2018) offers a different epistemic argument for no-platforming than the two considered so far. He holds that inviting problematic speakers comes with showing them at least a basic level of respect, the respect granted to any visiting speaker. Showing some such speakers this level of respect, he continues, psychologically harms victimized and marginalized students and conflicts with the pursuit of truth. This is because what causes the harm is partly the students’ knowledge that the offending speaker is chosen and tolerated by administrators and/or peers in the groups that the students hope to identify with. This may lead students to feel isolated and betrayed (ibid: 188, 189). And, Fantl adds, “[s]tudents who feel isolated and betrayed because of the invitations to problematic speakers are often right to feel isolated and betrayed because, in inviting the problematic speakers, they have been harmed” (ibid: 190).
Fantl anticipates the response that exposure to these speakers might still help students develop resilience and tolerance. In reply, he argues that the “values of ‘toughening up’ and tolerance” shouldn’t be readily endorsed by academics because academics value truth, and valuing truth can conflict with the value of resilience in at least two ways.
First, if we know that the speakers brought in to toughen up the students or teach them tolerance are uttering falsehoods, then we are prioritizing those other values over the value of truth because we are allowing falsehoods an inroad to the university that they wouldn’t otherwise have. […]
Second, […] psychic harms done to students by inviting offensive speakers are the results of the students’ accurate perceptions of genuine betrayal. Therefore, in toughening students up or teaching them tolerance, we end up ensuring that they don’t respond accurately to real harms. We ignore the value of truth because we teach students to inaccurately judge the intrinsic harms done to them by our coddling of the peddlers of false and marginalizing speech. It is only by refusing to invite relevant offensive speakers to campus that we in fact give due respect to truth—the single ultimate value (Fantl, 2018: pp. 200–201)
Based on these passages, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that Fantl endorses the existential claim that there are some cases in which the epistemic considerations that he mentions justify refusing to invite relevant problematic speakers to campus. Are his two epistemic reasons for no-platforming such speakers convincing? When a problematic speaker is hosted for a talk to help students develop resilience and tolerance, are these traits thereby valued more than or prioritized to the truth?
We think not. Even when a problematic speaker who advocates falsehoods is hosted to help students develop resilience and tolerance, this is compatible with valuing truth. For, as noted, exposure to falsehoods defended by authentic dissenters has epistemic benefits: It requires students rejecting these views to develop their critiques carefully, prompting a refinement of their truth-tracking abilities. Inviting such speakers thus doesn’t necessarily frustrate the goal of truth even when their invitation is primarily aimed at helping students develop resilience and tolerance. Moreover, even if some problematic speakers were too misguided to offer valuable authentic dissent, as argued above, not blocking all of them would still contribute to truth tracking: It helps universities counteract pernicious higher-order evidence tied to the charge of a politicization of academia, which may often arise when no-platforming occurs. Allowing falsehoods an inroad to university is thus not necessarily at odds with valuing truth.
What about Fantl’s second point that by inviting problematic speakers to ‘toughen’ students up, we also undermine the goal of truth-taking in that this may make students less sensitive to truths about being betrayed (by others, e.g., the host university)? Fantl assumes that inviting a problematic speaker and granting them minimal respect constitutes a de facto betrayal of vulnerable students. However, it isn’t clear that such a betrayal is bound to occur on all relevant occasions. To be sure, it would evidently be cruel and morally unacceptable to cordially invite, say, a member of the Ku Klux Klan to defend the practice of lynching people of color in front of an audience of African-American students (Fantl, 2018: p. 199). But such cases also fall outside the purview of the here relevant and interesting no-platforming cases, because the use of the policy is uncontroversial in such situations anyway.
Moreover, there arguably are invitations of problematic speakers, where, even if some students might still feel betrayed, they haven’t in fact been betrayed. Suppose that the party inviting a problematic speaker issues the invitation on the explicit basis of the kind of epistemic considerations we discussed above (i.e., to develop student’s critical thinking, etc.), and this is communicated to the students. The speaker would then be offered a minimally respectful treatment. But the university wouldn’t thereby affirm the speaker’s view(s),Footnote 21 and students would know that the purpose of the talk is to have an otherwise less attainable opportunity to sharpen their analytical skills so as to better refute the speaker’s point(s) in the future. Since the explicit rationale for the invitation would be to assist students’ intellectual development, a persisting feeling of betrayal on part of the students would no longer be fully justified in all cases. After all, in aiming to enable students to convincingly reject the speaker’s point(s), the inviting party would show an important type of solidarity with them. This point casts doubts on Fantl’s strong conclusion that it is “only by refusing to invite relevant offensive speakers to campus that we in fact give due respect to truth” (2018: p. 201). Fantl’s argument at best highlights the need for the right intention in the inviting party, and for their carefully framing talks by problematic speakers such as to make it clear to vulnerable students that their educational interests and rights have been respected.
We grant that when such a framing does not occur, or problematic speakers are not invited for the epistemic, educational reasons mentioned, Fantl’s epistemic consideration might still justify no-platforming. But it would then need to be shown that in the cases at issue, the epistemic costs that he highlights outweigh those mentioned in Sect. 3. So far, it is unclear whether they would do so. Fantl’s second epistemic consideration for no-platforming thus also doesn’t suffice to establish that, on any particular occasion when the question of no-platforming arises, we are epistemically better off if we adopt the policy.