About every 5 years or so, some bright spark in the Oxford or Cambridge Union comes up with the “thrilling” idea of inviting Nick Griffin, David Irving or whoever happens to be the current racist fuck du jour to speak. This results in a wholly predictable row which the media then duly reports. Because we’ve all gone Web 2.0 these days it also results in Facebook groups and bloggers getting incredibly exercised about the subject.
I’m sorry, but this simply will not do. I would not personally ban David Irving or the BNP, just as I would not ban Hizb ut-Tahrir. They are perfectly entitled to shout their views at the top of their lungs in the public arena short of inciting violence. But it is not denying them freedom of expression if I choose not to invite them round to my house. The same applies to any club or association I am a member of. It isn’t censorship for me to advise an individual not to break bread with a scumbag, it’s being helpful.
For a private students club to choose to hear them speak isn’t a defence of freedom of speech, it is being Frightfully Clever and Frightfully Daring. No-one learns anything from the exercise, they just have their prejudices confirmed. Extremists don’t pose a problem for freedom of speech; Voltaire nipped that one in the bud 300 years ago. The real challenge to freedom of speech in the modern age are laws such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. The problem is where you draw the line in an increasingly complex world.
The self-proclaimed purpose of the Oxford Union and its lighter blue equivalent is, I thought, to open minds and widen debate, not to preside over a quinquennial punch up. Surely their purpose is to create light not heat? There’s nothing daring, or clever or even remotely interesting about wading into the same row every few years. It is reasonable for those impartial outsiders like me to wonder why they feel so compelled and who on earth would want to be a member of such a nonsense organisation. If going through the motions is all they’re interested in, why not simply hold a regular barn dance?