Not Wong: Lewandowski at the Union

Context: Corey Lewandowski—Trump’s former campaign manager—is due to give a talk at the Oxford Union this Wednesday. Certain online reactions have pointed out his fascist beliefs, as well as suggesting that his visit to the Union is morally condemnable. Contrary claims have attacked these reactions on the basis that they repress free speech and reinforce Oxford’s liberal echo chamber. Whilst I am more emotively aligned with the no-platformers, I hold that Lewandowski’s visit is justified by the unique right of the Union’s members to access the ability to interrogate and question the man himself. Lewandowski does not deserve to be heard; Union members, however, deserve to hear him.

Clarification: I find Lewandowski’s opportunism and work with Trump despicable. Trump himself is a man who sprouts xenophobic, race-baiting, half-baked post-truths; he espouses views that have encouraged misogynistic and racist persecution of minorities; his “victory” has galvanised his previously dormant supporters, and has dragged America into trenches of uncertainty. The important thing to recognise, however, is that Trump and his cronies have already “legitimised” themselves as “democratic representatives” of the USA. To that effect, it is unclear how the Union’s inviting him over would be significant in further normalising Donald Trump.

One of the most popular arguments for the talk is the “trending” post-election claim that liberals ought to engage with those they disagree with, in order to convince them. The first response to this is to note that it is perfectly consistent to approve of engagement with non-liberals in every other context whilst rejecting the hosting of Lewandowski at the Union—it is possible to posit that the unique renown of the Union renders the context-specific reason of not letting a populist campaign manager spout their views more dominant than the context-neutral reason of general engagement.
The second response is that it is genuinely unlikely that:

  1. Lewandowski would suddenly have a change in heart after being questioned, OR
  2. Union members would suddenly find an hour of interactive but non-in-depth discussion a life-changing experience that would sway them from being anti-liberal to liberal.

The third response points to everyone’s favourite Millean argument—the “in-betweeners”: it is equally unlikely that the undecided middle (if there even is one, after the hugely divisive US election) would find 1 hour of theatrical PR from Trump’s campaign manager and Union members asking questions evidentially sufficient to swing them.
Finally it is unclear why people cannot be persuaded or converted via watching other debates or reading articles, so the impacts are at best non-exclusive. This argument therefore clearly falls.

Another argument in favour of having Lewandowski is the classic view that he has the freedom of speech to deliver and say whatever he wishes to say, within certain boundaries (that are apparently not crossed by Lewandowski). Several points render this argument a horrendously bad one. Firstly, there’s a distinction between banning Lewandowski from speaking:

  1. At all
  2. In public spaces
  3. In a specific, private space.

It is trivially a denial of an KKK mob’s freedom of speech to deny them the right to shout profanity at a Black person’s funeral—this does not imply that it is illegitimate. Similarly, given that the Union is a private space co-owned by its members, it is not true that not granting Lewandowski the right to speak at the Union is equivalent to dismissing (illegitimately) his freedom of speech. Recognise that he is perfectly capable of expressing his views and beliefs through multiple other channels.
Secondly, even if the argument is that no-platforming him encourages a dangerous precedent (this slippery slope certainly does not seem to be threatening us at the moment, Trump is now broadcasting his lies from the greatest bully pulpit on Earth), it is unclear why this slippery slope extends so far as to create the Orwellian reality of alt-right fantasy.
Third, given that the norms, codes, and expectations within private spaces are co-authored by their own members, there exists no prima facie reason why the standards of permissible speech within private spaces ought to match those of public spaces. For one, it would not be unjustifiable for a Muslim to deny a man’s right to scream Islamophobic slurs outside their house’s windows, given that the man’s speech enters his house—which is owned by the offended individual. This is perfectly compatible with the classical liberal view that people may have the right to produce Islamophobic speech in public spaces.

I do posit, however, that the Lewandowski talk should still go ahead (and the scheduled protests, too, provided that they are peaceful and non-disruptive—which would be the only hypothetical reasons that disqualify them from being legitimate speech-acts in a liberal society), for a simple reason. It is not that such a despicable man deserves to be heard, but that the Union members who choose to attend should have the right to confront his arguments in person. The Union has hosted le Pen, Farage, and their likes before—it is worth noting that:

  1. Not only did psychological legitimisation not really manifest in reality (because the dominant student media have always framed the Union’s decisions as grounded upon principle of first-order neutrality and free speech, as opposed to the view that its actions carried active endorsement weight), but also:
  2. The Union’s members gained an exclusive opportunity to challenge (face-to-face) figures that would otherwise be difficult to access.

To the extent that there are members who find this experience valuable (via gaining potentially exclusive information about Lewandowski, for instance, or the ability to directly confront and refute his views), there exists an obligation on behalf of the Union to serve its paid members.

In conclusion, Lewandowski is a horrible human being, and the classic pro-talk arguments do not effectively defend his presence. However, I do believe the talk should go on as scheduled. For a pluralist society is one where mutually incompatible views are expressed, and where debates happen not only on a surface level—but also manifest in deeper, internal reflections.