The Oxford Union has long claimed that it is the ‘last bastion of free speech’, but its state today makes a mockery of that very idea. Yesterday, with two days’ notice before the event, it was announced that the Union would be hosting Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist.
Bannon is on record attacking the free press in the United States and whipping up hatred directed towards minority groups. He has not just pandered to but also legitimised the far-right in America, culminating in the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016.
All this begs the question: why invite him? Of late, the Union seems to have relied on shock factor to draw in its audiences. Earlier this term, there was controversy surrounding their decision to invite Alice Weidel, the leader of Germany’s far-right AfD in the Bundestag. Before that they hosted Anthony Scaramucci and Ann Coulter. All of this has been done under the guise of ‘free speech’ and ‘constructive debate’, but in reality such events contribute to neither.
There’s been a growing trend recently of drawing a false causal link between preventing hate speech and limiting free speech. This has got to stop. The marked difference between hate speech (using a platform to attack and oppress minorities) and free speech has long been noted, and it falls on us, as members of a liberal democracy to uphold it. It’s a nonsense to suggest that we’re obliged to platform hate speech but also to listen to it, and expect minorities, sometimes whose very right to exist is being questioned by these speakers, to sit by and listen. There would be no contradiction in a position that refused to platform the far-right and also uphold free speech; the issue of free speech has always been about state coercion, and not voluntary organisations.
It’s not like we don’t know what Steve Bannon thinks. When he comes to the Union, Bannon will repeat the same talking points as ever, denigrating minorities and stirring hatred, and all we’ll have achieved is that we’ll have given a platform from which to spout them. His platform already exists and he’s already used it extensively. We know what he’s going to say and thus far constructive debate has failed to effectively combat him, no matter how ridiculed he has been.
Even if we hold that the value of listening to these people is in challenging them, the format of a Union speech is not conducive to effective argument. If it were possible to defeat the far-right in a one-minute question posed by an undergraduate to a speaker, I reckon our world would have substantially fewer problems today.
Sadly, however, this is not the case. We’ve seen time and time again how we can laugh some of these people out of the chamber, but as soon as that video goes online their supporters will class it as a victory anyway.
Liberal democracy thrives on debate and can only be sustained with the protection of the rights to free speech and free thought. This, however, must be squared with our commitment and responsibility to protect minorities. Allowing people like Bannon to attack them does not come under our commitment to these values, and his views are fundamentally opposed to everything we stand for.
The Union’s bizarre fixation with inviting increasingly shocking speakers has got to end. The decision not just to host Bannon but also to delay announcing his visit until two days beforehand demonstrates a cynical desire to stifle criticism of their actions and also shows how genuinely out of touch the society has become.
People like Steve Bannon thrive on publicity and legitimisation; we should give him neither.