Oxbridge Twittery and Freedom of Speech

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?


  1. A very interesting thought-provoking blog entry James – I’m not sure where I stand on proposals to effectively ban someone from being a member of a trade union on political party membership alone – this was after a case of a BNP member being in a union and causing all kinds of embarrassment.

    Apparently – speaking to someone I won’t reveal – it will only be used as a last resort!

    Where does that road lead though James? ;@)

  2. The Oxford and Cambridge Unions are not trade unions; they are speaking unions.

    Regarding TUs, they need to tread very carefully on this and it is an interesting debate. My bet is however that if TUs started to expel members of non-extremist parties that it would very quickly become their death knell. They already struggle to convince people of their relevance (which is a shame); such a blatant act of partisanship would signal their utter irrelevance in the eyes of most people. As self-destructive as the Trade Union movement is, I can’t see it ever happening.

    Do I support the right of any private union, club, association or political party from policing its own membership though? Absolutely.

  3. As someone who has taken a lot of flak as a Branch Secretary and chair of a national committee of my TU, I would be horrified if they started chucking out the Lib Dems………..particularly as my view is that I would have been chucked out of any other party by now anyways! However, I do agree that organisations should be able to expel those who don’t share or uphold their values, not to do so is the road to ruin and an invitation to their enemies to destroy them from within. Therefore, if any TUs do decide to throw out members out on the basis of their New Labour membership, so be it, it will be their just desserts!

  4. I dance a jig of glee on your last para. I was successively at Oxford and then Cambridge at two points in the quinquennial cycle, and accordingly can confirm that it is what is technically known as “a bunch of repetitive toss”, and occurs only so that another generation of limp-chinned egotists can wet themselves in a cause other than tuition fees. David Irving probably has it in his diary.

  5. I think there’s undoubtedly an element of attention seeking when a students union does this but it’s a very useful intellectual exercise to be forced to justify opinions that are so rarely challenged in mainstream debate they can often be perceived as self evident; particularly so for undergraduate students, who are far less likely to have had their political beliefs challenged in this manner.

    It’s a cliché to invoke Mill on a liberal blog but I think he puts the argument far more succinctly than I could hope to manage:

    “even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience”

  6. Tom C, I think you make a fair point about the need to rebut arguments (even though it is clearly a lot more fun to have a go at the Union). The proof of the pudding however would lie in whether or not any smaller student groups ever invited such controversial figures to address them in surroundings more conducive to debate. It’s bloody easy to rebut someone’s arguments when there are three hundred of you and one of them and the tone of the occasion lends itself to barracking. Anyone who really wants to test their mettle against the likes of Irving should invite him to sit round a small table with them, give everyone a notepad and keep the tone civil. It’s the grandstanding I object to.

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