Platforming Controversy

Over recent years we have seen the emergence of no-platforming. No platforming is the act of removing someone’s platform to speak. This usually happens to prevent the airing of hate speech but has been increasingly used to silence academic critique. Institutions from all sectors have struggled to operate from a position of anything other than fear.

What do these great institutions fear? “Woke” backlash. The cancel culture which has seen companies drop shares and individuals lose their jobs. I write this with an understanding that some will find even the mention of this topic controversial and with the understanding that for many people, speaking out has a cost. It is particularly costly when those in an opposing view are dogmatic and this is where we so often find ourselves in society at the moment; two extremes unable to meet. Debate has become non-existent. The solution, it would seem, is either avoiding the topic entirely or platforming everyone regardless of the harm it does. Neither of these approaches work well

When we have a platform that can give a voice to others, we have a responsibility to make sure those voices are seated in a context which reduces harm. If people are afraid to talk about a topic for fears of being labelled a racist or a TERF, we have a responsibility to provide that space without delegitimising the oppression of another. For example, it is possible to open up a discussion around the fears of discussing race as a white person, without that discussion concluding that racism wouldn’t exist if we didn’t talk about it. It is possible to have difficult discussions without resorting to insults, including the notion that it is just ‘fashionable’ to recognise the oppression of an entire group of humans (both views shared in October 2020’s Therapy Today). But such discussions require a level of nuance that is so often skipped or ignored.

It is important to remember that we are all learning and all trying to get out from under the centuries of oppressive thinking; whether that be sex discrimination, racial discrimination or the discrimination and othering of those with disabilities. We all have blind spots; therefore, we all need each other to see with true clarity.

That clarity starts with learning from each other’s mistakes. Something which would have avoided a lot of controversy for the BACP’s title publication, Therapy Today, this week if only they had paid attention to the controversy around the British Psychological Society’s (BPS) publication, The Psychologist, back in August 2020. The Psychologist published a letter which was even less inflammatory than those in Therapy Today. The author penned a scolding note to tell The Psychologist and the society to stop involving itself in social justice issues like black lives matter and get back to being a science. This coupled with the author’s views that white psychologists are experiencing racism led to an outcry. This eventually led to the letter being removed completely and replaced with a note from the Editor about the editorial process and the reflection that happened in the days after the publication went live.

One gets the sense that the editor of Therapy Today asked The Psychologist to hold her glass whilst she set in motion the steps for more blatant, unchallenged, racism. The difference being that when publicly challenged for her editorial decisions, she had no intention of displaying any humility, telling one twitter user that they needed to contextualise the racism within the entire magazine. Which completely misses the point. The two don’t cancel each other out, this is not algebra! It is also completely tone deaf to argue that we need to provide a(nother) platform for something which has been thoroughly ‘platformed’ for centuries. From the discussions that are happening around this issue, the harm people experienced was not that the view was aired, but that it was aired without challenge. It would have been possible to print the opinion and then respond to it. It was even an opportunity to promote whatever anti-racism/diversity CPD BACP might be planning. Essentially a statement to say they don’t agree with or promote the views within the letter and that they are offering X CPD on this subject. If members have any ideas about how to decrease anxiety around talking about these issues, they can contact X person.

There are some really problematic views within the BACP structure right now. The way they respond to criticism is harmful – to those challenging them and to the BACP’s image. But at the same time, it is difficult not to wonder why they didn’t expect this happening at some point. The editor admits, in print, that she wanted to cancel the Black History special edition of the magazine. The special issue which only came into existence after complaints that it was absent prior to 2017, and the rationale for its removal was that it was unfair to shine a light on that one issue when others also existed. One can presume that it never crossed her mind to simply shine a light on them too. Make what you will of that commentary but the truth is, her viewpoint as editor steers the magazine. It’s that attitude which sits behind the decision to publish the idea that racism doesn’t exist without any comment.

As I wrote earlier, we need to work together to help each other see through our blind spots. That tends to be a little more challenging if we only offer criticism. I hope that in their review of this incident, BACP start to actually listen to feedback. Not listen to respond, but actually listen because some might say that this point was the inevitable end point of a line of falling dominoes. If that is true, there were plenty of dominoes that could have been removed prior to this point to prevent this harm from occurring.

Written by Tara Shennan