If the elected leadership of the Oxford Union wish to invite a pair of controversial figures to argue with, then they are entirely within their rights to do so. It cuts to the very essence of a debating society to have polarising figures speaking, to challenge and refute their arguments.
In the past decade, however, the consensus on who is or who isn’t acceptable in polite society has disintegrated. In 1998, a debate involving British National Party founder John Tyndall was cancelled, after both student opposition and a series of racially motivated nail bombings in London. Similarly, a debate invitation sent to David Irving in 2001 was met with bitter protests after OUSU launched an interfering campaign to rescind it.
This is not to say that Irving is an admirable martyr figure: although he has since recanted and changed his views, and is now absolutely without doubt that the Holocaust took place, Mr Justice Gray told him following the loss of his libel suit in November 1996, that he was “an active Holocaust denier…anti-Semitic and racist…he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism”. All men and women of sense, and Irving is one of them, know that far-right causes are, and always will be, the preserve of a misguided minority.
Tryl is not ignorant of what effect his invitation will have on the Oxford and national community, but neither is he a right-wing sympathiser. His intention is to make good Harold Macmillan’s frequently quoted declaration that the Union is “the last bastion of free speech in the Western world”.
In his annual Oration, University Vice Chancellor John Hood made a stand for academic freedom, and he is to be congratulated; it is a braver stand than he was prepared to take in the governance reform debate. He made a number of admirable points, particularly by calling for students to be exposed to powerful ideas as “a fundamental and important part of the educational process.” There is no doubt that extremism on university campuses is a problem, but fear, misunderstanding and McCarthyism will not solve it; rather, they will set uncomfortable precedents in years to come.
Rejecting fear extends to inviting the views of those we disagree strongly with, such as David Irving. That the invitation is so eminently justifiable suggests we have been asking the wrong questions. The necessity of intellectual freedom is already quite obvious to Oxford’s philosophers, and the silencing of opposition quite obviously wrong to its historians. If we really believe in those things that are important to us, we must be prepared to defend them in free and open debate.
Flatly refusing to listen to an argument on principle is a foolish thing to do. Debates can never be won that way, and truth never prospers in an environment in which academics are afraid of being ostracised for expressing controversial opinions. The best way to confront hate and prejudice is to expose the lies that underpin them, not to plead ignorance and hope they go away. That’s been tried before, and it doesn’t work.
We may not like what some people tell us, but if the students of a university as intellectually robust as Oxford can no longer tolerate potentially offensive ideas, then academia itself is in trouble. Abolition of no platform policies is a first step towards engaging with and finally defeating dangerous ideas.