This week the now-routine disruption of speaker meetings claimed another victim. A discussion between Yaron Brook and Carl Benjamin at Kings College London was shut down by an incursion by masked thugs. What are the practical limits and effects of these kinds of tactics, and what is to be done about them?
The stakes are high: in Western Anglophone polities, the socially acceptable limits of speech are much narrower than what is permitted by law even before ideologically-motivated activists try to stop anyone from speaking: the raised eyebrow, curled lip and withdrawn dinner-party invitation have a very firm regulatory effect on most individuals. The means by which Salonfähig opinion is policed are outside the scope of this article and almost exclusively legal. What is new is an organised small group of radicals attempting their own private policing in flagrant violation of the law.
If nothing is done about no-platforming, fake bomb threats against speaker meetings, falsely activated fire alarms and so on, then a trivially small group of people will be able to prevent the free interchange of ideas face-to-face in public. An analogous battle takes place routinely against uncensored discussion platforms on the Internet.
Those waving the Antifa banners don’t do it to everyone. They are perfectly strategic about their targets, and in the recent incident, the target was Carl Benjamin, a mild-mannered centre-left Youtube personality who happens to be effective in countering a narrative they want to propagate. More usually, the targets are the centre-right or the far-right; the Anglophone centre-right is orders of magnitude more popular, decent and entertaining than the far right and is proportionately more likely to be targeted. Left unchecked, all the off-message figures, both of centre-left and centre-right, all those people trying out NEW ideas that are threatening to someone will be driven from the public stage.
It is useful to understand the broader context of the Antifa tactics against public meetings. See these three articles (which come with something of a health warning themselves):
So, the Antifa types do it because it is fun, because it’s hardcore, because it works, because it is intellectually low-effort, and so on. Critically, it drives up the costs of their opponents.
The most important thing about counter-measures is to choose those which are anti-escalation. If stopping Antifa thuggery turns society into a police state, or increases political polarisation and tension, that is likely to be severe net negative. Note that the tactic mentioned in “Days of Rage”, of retaliating in kind by turning up at Leftist meetings and disrupting them, is itself illegal in the UK under the Public Meeting Act 1908.
In the Kings College case this week, there were a few notable features: the college and/or student authorities failed to provide adequate security, imposed odd last-minute restrictions and changes, and tried to ban filming. One has to ask (and someone should formally ask), whether filming was banned in order to assist the incursion. Additionally, colleges do not want to have their security staff actually hit students, as that is bad PR. They must not be permitted to charge a premium for security services they tacitly don’t want to provide.
What is to be done?
- Ensure the Public Meeting Act 1908 always goes enforced.
- Ensure that when the law is breached, a complaint is made to the police, absolutely unconditionally.
- Compile quantative datasets of no-platform incidents.
- Ensure the law is enforced consistently.