When Donald Trump’s former campaign strategist Corey Lewandowski appeared at The Union this week, anti-Trump protesters’ attempt to disrupt the event was an appalling display of the new left’s fatal disdain for freedom of speech.
By hosting Mr Lewandowski, the Union was complicit in the hatred of his campaign, so the argument goes. The groups organising the protest claimed that to give Mr Lewandowski “a platform” is to “legitimise” his views—as if Donald Trump were some unknown maverick extremist, rather than the president-elect of the United States. No, these views were sadly legitimised many months ago when they entered the mainstream of American politics.
For the Union to step down from its position of neutrality to take a stance on the worthiness of Donald Trump’s campaign would be perverse. Imagine if debating institutions had silenced, say, gay rights activists when they stood in the position of defying Oxford’s consensus. We must all respect freedom of speech even in instances when it benefits our opponents. People who believe in tolerance and compassion should trust that they will triumph against hatred eventually, if allowed to engage with it. A debate chamber should never be a safe space: shielding audiences from nasty views will not mean that such views are defeated. Today’s left sadly seems to have lost sight of how open debate, in which prejudice is aired and challenged, is how the argument has been won by the left in the past, and could be in the future.
The current resurgence of the far-right owes a lot to exactly this kind of shutting down of debate by the left. The campaign successes of Donald Trump in America and Vote Leave in Britain stemmed in part from a rebellion against political correctness. University student bodies, few more so than Oxford JCRs, have been at the forefront of a recent global tendency by which anyone questioning the progressive consensus has been mocked or dismissed in eerily Orwellian style as ‘problematic’, rather than engaged with and persuaded. If JCRs close themselves off to dissenting opinion it is a shame but when national politics does it is a disaster. Abandoned by the progressive consensus, the only place people not immediately convinced by the left have found their voice has been with the extreme right. Freedom of speech is a powerful weapon, of which the right has tragically been allowed to take ownership – the proponents of tolerance must reclaim their stake in it.
Any such suggestion that lessons should be learnt from the right would surely provoke upturned noses from many ‘progressives’, more concerned with cultivating their own moral superiority than winning the argument and winning power. If the left is to stand any chance of reproducing the right’s recent mass-mobilising electoral coups, it has to pay attention to what people like Lewandowski and Farage have been doing well and what their opponents have been doing so wrong. The best place on Wednesday night to face up to and learn from the tactics and psychology of such campaigns was inside the Union chamber, not on the street with a placard.