Don’t confuse free speech with hate speech

The Union’s series of predictably shocking speakers are anathema to our values

PHOTO: Michael Vadon

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.


  1. I note that Finn Conway believes that free speech is supposed to protect minorities and defines hate speech as that speech which denigrates minorities. What utter tosh, Finn! Anyone, even minorities are capable of hate speech. Just look at Choudary, ISIS, etc! To protect minorities is one thing, but to undermine the rights of the majority is another! The majority are rightly pissed off at Finn like people attacking them at every turn. Islamophobia doesn’t exist! A phobia is an irrational fear, a fear of oppressive fanatical and down right evil Muslims is not irrational, just look a what the Pakistanis have done to that poor Christian woman, Asia Bibi, and for what? Alleged blasphemy! There are 30,000 jehadist in the UK now. Should they be killed? Read the ! Newspapers Finn, you’ll be surprised. Most moslems hate Western civilization, at least the ones, whom I spoke to.

  2. Oxford University actively recruits unqualified minorities at the expense of much more qualified people. What about the black history student, who gained 3 B’s at A level and was accepted to Oxford University. She was given a free extra year of intensive tuition to help her catch up as well. That is grossly unfair!

  3. The idea that (in some JS Millian Petri dish) one opinion will battle with another and only one will be a victor in its environment, in of course naive for countless reasons. But allowing the dissemination of a variety of views that have political traction in an environment where people can engage with them and start an evaluation process is civically useful. Bannon’s own US background and his connection with various continental politicians is clearly of some significance, politically. The cordon sanitaire imposed on these trends is in part what fuels their growth.

    If we view ‘free speech’ as some property that exists in a culture, then limiting it in certain areas (online, at meetings, persecuting heretics in academia or politics etc) clearly reduces the reach of that property: while they can go elsewhere to express themselves, limitations have still been imposed to certain people and in certain environments.

    It seems clear to me that the progressive Left these days covertly advances its political agenda by trying to exclude those voices that threaten its cultural hegemony. It does so through the mealy-mouthed devices of inclusivity, safe spaces, safeguarding, equality etc etc which in effect are its own value system protected through this vague gaseous moral fog.

    This weak essay above just does that: inclusivity requires out to prevent Bannon speaking because of some vague threat to ‘minorities’. Just as we must stop others speaking about the gender agenda because of threats to transgenders (even when these threats are by their own hand due to self-harm); or pro-Life people must be stopped due to the delicate mental states of women considering abortion. This tendency is rolled out in countless areas with one main objection: territorial claims for the public cultural space on behalf of progressives. By acceding to it, you by default allow their dominance of this space and the cultural shifts that come with it. Being ‘nice’ and wanting not to be called nasty names by charlatans, is cowardice and results in cultural nihilism of all that is of value.

  4. “hate speech” is a fabricated and meaningless concept designed to silence dissent from left wing orthodoxy, nothing more. It’s not designed to”protect minorities”, it’s designed to enforce the will of those in power.

    Free speech itself is what protects minorities, as majority opinions have no need of protection, unpopular MINORITY opinions do.


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