CC Pancheva, Law, Exeter

“Extreme views should not be given a public platform”

Inviting politically controversial speakers and inciting headline-churning protests is something that the Oxford Union is, embarrassingly, rather well known for. In the name of ‘the wider debate’, members have recently witnessed the tumult that ensues following visits from a number of politically-extreme speakers, ranging from the debacle last week surrounding the visit by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, to the hostile welcome given to Nick Griffin, party leader of the BNP. But although freedom of speech is a central tenet of any debating society, what are we actually gaining by inviting speakers well-known to hold hateful, racist and discriminatory views.

The issue here is a glaringly obvious one: racist speakers will try and promote racist views. True, inviting them to speak at the Union inevitably provokes hostility and barbed questions from the rather more liberal student body, and it wouldn’t quite be a Union debate without a few well-timed points of information! But it would be foolish to suggest that the only thing going on here is your run-of-the-mill debate chamber sparring.

There is a good reason why hostility towards controversial speakers is taken beyond pointed questions and disparaging remarks to fully-fledged, all out protest. All publicity is good publicity, and an invitation to speak at the well-known, prestigious and headline-making Oxford Union gives radical speakers a platform to promote and spread derogatory and offensive views.The biggest problem caused by this is that we simply do not seem to be taking issues of racism or other forms of discrimination seriously. For those affected by those issues, inviting the very people who insist on segregation, inequality and oppression is a serious slap in the face.

As with any debate on political issues, there is always the suggestion that views on either side may be justified, or at least are genuinely arguable. Opening the floor for ‘debate’ on extreme right-wing secularism or white supremacy gives these abhorrent policies a chance of approbation, or at least a very public mouthpiece. Thus despite the number of anti-racism and discrimination policies we adopt, isn’t there an element of hypocrisy in cordially inviting and setting up a platform for those who represent the complete antithesis of those policies? Were it not for the protests and hostile reactions, could we not be seen to be endorsing those views? Quite simply, if we want to make a serious statement about equality and rights, there is no room for giving a platform to those who deplore these ideals.

Ravin Thambapillai, PPE, St John’s

“The invitation is a question of motive”

How far should free speech go? There are two separate, but linked, debates here and I want to draw the distinction clearly. The first debate is more or less settled so I won’t dwell on it; I’m sure almost all will agree with the principles of free speech. If not, then the following questions arise; a) how will we progress if we ban things we don’t like? b) How do we know arguments are wrong if we don’t have the chance to rebut them? and c) to whom is the power given to determine which arguments are fit for public consumption? So far as I am aware, no-one has come up with convincing counter arguments to these problems, so I treat the first debate as settled.

The second one is more intriguing, if only because it is less settled in our society. That is the question of providing platforms. On the one hand providing platforms is supposed to lend credibility to these idiots, on the other hand, it’s supposed to be an opportunity to take them head on and rebut them. Since I assume most of the ‘hawks’ and right-wingers in this debate will treat the issue as settled, I felt it worthwhile to make the point that should underscore the left’s commitment to free speech. The truth is, the best reason to support free speech and open platforms is precisely because we do not have it. Is it ‘free speech’ whenever an author criticising Israel’s foreign policy is flooded with death threats? Is it ‘free speech’ when American television journals are so blatantly skewed in their reporting, since AIPAC has decided that almost any criticism of Israel’s policies implies anti-Semitism? It isn’t. Yet, if we expect a voice and a chance to explain ourselves when we have accusations of bigotry thrown at us (and we do), we really ought to at least listen to the people who seem like bigots to us. They may not convince us and we may not expect them to, but if the organisers sincerely believe these people don’t have the chance to explain themselves properly, then there is a moral case for providing them with a platform to do that.

It seems to me, that if you accept that honest debate on Israel-Palestine is largely shut down in America, then the issue of whether these people could be invited is a question of motivation. If invitations are extended to boost the ego of the Union President, this vanity is deplorable. However, if the invitation was extended out of a belief that people who hold these beliefs are shouted down, then the invitation was legitimate. There is of course the question whether there are other people out there who deserve the platform more. Well, obviously yes. So I assume the organisers were either not creative enough or else that these people chose not to come. With these caveats, and the assumption that the invitation was sincere, then I think that belief in free speech does give us a reason to provide platforms to people we despise.