Steve Bannon and no-platforming

Steve Bannon was invited to speak at the New Yorker Festival, then promptly disinvited after Kathryn Schulz (author of Being Wrong, which I can recommend as an accessible, yet very thoughtful, account of some basic errors in inductive reasoning), Judd Apatow, Jim Carrey, Ally Fogg and others indicated that they were opposed to his presence there, and (in some cases) that they would not appear at the festival if he did.

By contrast, and as everyone was busy having their say on how civilisation was either doomed or saved by David Remnick of the New Yorker’s decision to disinvite Bannon, Zanny Minton Beddoes, Editor-in-Chief at The Economist, also gave reason to believe that civilisation was either doomed or saved in asserting that Bannon would not be disinvited from The Economist’s Open Future Festival.

I’m obviously being hyperbolic in talking of civilisation being doomed or saved, because, to be honest, Bannon isn’t that consequential any more, and I don’t believe that either of these decisions are that consequential either, at least in terms of assisting or retarding Bannon’s agenda.

The reason why these decisions nevertheless matter is that Bannon’s populism is manifested in nationalist, racist, sexist and xenophobic sentiments in the USA and elsewhere. It doesn’t need or merit publicity, and has already proved itself to be resistant to correction through counterargument.

To put the point simply: there might well be a point at which – even if we have a default commitment to hearing everyone out – we have a equally strong or stronger moral duty to stop facilitating the impression that everyone deserves a seat at the grown-up table, no matter what nonsense they spout.

As Dara O’Briain observes in his great skit about false balance, it would surely strike one as absurd if you kept on hosting discussions where scientists from NASA were panelists alongside “Barry, who thinks the sky is a carpet painted by God”.

Yes, we don’t want echo chambers, so we can hear Barry’s story once, or twice – but at some (early) point, we can often conclude that we know what he’s going to say, that we disagree for good reasons, and that we no longer need to hear him say it.

He can of course carry on saying it – I’m not making any claim regarding his rights to believe or express his view, but only about facilitating its expression. If you choose to invite him, especially to high-profile events like the two listed above (and the forthcoming Munk Debate, where Bannon will be in conversation with David Frum), you are providing support in the form of lending them credibility they don’t merit, and access to a platform they haven’t earned on the basis of the strength of their ideas and arguments.

Having said that: once you’ve invited them, you should not disinvite them because of social media outrage, or threats of withdrawals by other participants. You should not have invited them in the first place (if you are committed to sensible debate) – but that’s not a reason to endorse the “heckler’s veto“.

Both the heckler’s veto and right-wing populism can be dangerous at the same time. The heckler’s veto, for the obvious reason that it can result in arguments being won by those who shout the loudest, and in nobody ever hearing important things that make them uncomfortable. Right-wing populism is dangerous because Hitler (yes, I know). (And, apologies to Dylan Moran too.)

The Economist made the correct decision here, in not disinviting him. But both The Economist and the New Yorker made the wrong decision to invite him in the first place.

Our broadcasters, newspapers, radio hosts and whomever else demonstrate how they think information, argument, civility, democracy, moral values and so forth should be balanced with attracting an audience via “controversy” or clickbait through who they host, and where.

As media consumers, we play a large role in influencing that balance, through what we read, watch and pay for, to be sure. But we’re also tilting the scale in a bigger conversation when we don’t allow organisations to make choices such as these, and then let them stand by those decisions and bear the consequences of them, in terms of reputation and audience.

We don’t want a world in which the heckler’s veto wins, because other hecklers might be louder than us, next time, and to the detriment of our arguments. To be more explicit: the heckler’s veto can sometimes be an example of the kind of populism that we’re protesting in the case of someone like Bannon.

Yes, he’s wrong, and we’re right – this time. But Bannon’s views are not going to gain more traction through being expressed on these various stages – he can already reach all the people who might be sympathetic to his views, on platforms that wouldn’t give a moment’s thought to disinviting him. And, he’s unlikely to find additional supporters amongst the subscriber-base of The Economist or the New Yorker.

But the subscriber-base can of course learn something through who publications think might merit airtime, via who they invite, and why. And, we can make our decisions regarding who we subscribe to on the basis of that information.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.