One thing I didn’t realise regarding the latest Oxford Union debacle is that this comes just a month after those heroic defenders of free speech denied Norman Finklestein a platform to criticise Israel:
Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians surely cannot be described as balanced by any stretch of the imagination. The Biblical injunction of “an eye for an eye” is grisly enough, but Israel goes even farther by its habitual practice of exacting an eye for an eyelash! As Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians becomes more heavy-handed and violent, the very notion of balance needs to be re-examined. Luke Tryl displayed neither wisdom nor courage in dealing with these broader issues and he eventually caved in to the pressure. On 19 October, four days before the debate, he curtly informed Finkelstein that his invitation was rescinded.
Perhaps Jonny or someone could explain to me why they appear to be supporting one rule for Jewish anti-Zionists but another rule for people who would happily march them into the gas chambers?
UPDATE: Mea culpa – I goofed. In the original version of this article I portrayed Norman Finkelstein as a Zionist, which was completely, 180 degree arse-over-backwards, something which I knew at the back of my mind but at the time had my mind on another article (ahem). With that said, far from weakening my argument, this actually makes it stronger as it shows how the Oxford Union is only a fair weather friend of freedom of speech. Thanks to Barry Stocker for pointing this out and letting me minimise the degree by which I managed to make a tit out of myself.
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?