As someone with Jewish heritage I cannot help noticing cases of antisemitism whenever they arise. And so I was disheartened to learn earlier this term that the Oxford Union would be hosting Mahathir bin Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who has described ‘antisemitic’ as a term devised to give Jewish people immunity from criticism and who apparently has no reservations about describing Jews as ‘hook-nosed’.
It is important to recognise from the founding principles of the Union that an invitation to speak does not constitute an endorsement of the speaker’s views, and this invitation was hardly unprecedented given that last term saw visits from current or former leaders of eight different countries. What this instance shows, however, is that the Union must consider how far it is willing to delve into the realms of controversy at the risk of tarnishing its reputation.
Something which I found far more concerning than any name featured on the Union’s term card was the conduct of some of those protesting the visit of Marion Maréchal last week, in particular the attested chants of ‘who protects the Nazis? Police protect the Nazis’.
Setting aside the issue of disrespecting those who work so hard to maintain public order, chants of this kind are hugely problematic. Taking the term ‘Nazi’ out of context and hurling it at anyone whose views one disagrees with risks distorting our perceptions of history and trivialising the experiences suffered by millions of victims. Even more crucially, such use of the term threatens to disallow any kind of distinction between varying degrees of fault. The implication in this case was that Maréchal, who has made controversial comments about Islam and homosexuality, should be lumped into a category which includes perpetrators of large scale atrocities.
Of course, not all of those present at last week’s protests took part in these chants. In general it is highly encouraging to see the visit of a figure like Maréchal accompanied by protests. When a guest speaker has been known to voice offensive and discriminatory views it is important to raise awareness of this and to put pressure on those attending the talk to use the opportunity for questions to hold the speaker to account.
But when peaceful protest gives way to physical violence, as occurred at the visit of Steve Bannon last term, and protestors begin to use language more hateful and vitriolic than any of the comments which form the pretext for their actions, their respectability is rapidly eroded and with it the prospect of challenging the speaker effectively. Protestors who resort to these methods seem fuelled by a belief that once someone has crossed a certain line there is no longer any point in debating them and the only reasonable response is to inundate them with abuse.
It is unclear whether such a belligerent approach can ever be successful. Consider how two decades ago a considerable victory was achieved against all those who would participate in Holocaust denial when David Irving was defeated in a libel case brought before the High Court. It was only by the careful deconstruction of Irving’s arguments that he was totally and irremediably discredited. Such a positive result would not have occurred if the course adopted had merely been to tell Irving how abominable he was.
A key argument which some protestors have used to justify their actions is that we should think more carefully before providing controversial speakers with a platform. Some of the orchestrators of history’s most unfortunate events, it can be argued, might never have attained the influence they did if those in power had done more to deny them access to large audiences.
These considerations are certainly valid and ought to be heeded, even if they do undermine the value of free speech. But it is difficult to argue for their relevance in the case of Maréchal, whose party came close to winning the French presidential elections in 2017. No-platforming ceases to be an effective response when the cause championed by the speaker has already received widespread acclaim, and besides it hardly seems probable that a talk given at the Oxford Union would impact on the political situation in a foreign country.
Even on a symbolic level it is difficult to justify no-platforming, because it removes the only option remaining for those who wish to take a stand against beliefs they find reproachable. This is to listen to the speaker to gain a clear understanding of their views and why they hold appeal, and to thus be better equipped to confront the speaker and to educate others about why these views are harmful.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that there are people who make us feel uncomfortable. Debate and reason are often the only effective means of response.