Saturday, 24 November 2007

Free Speech debate in Oxford: we're guilty of dereliction of duty

The saga of the Oxford Union's Free Speech Forum has taken a new twist, after students voted that the controversial debate should go ahead as planned next Monday. The student debating society at Oxford University had invited Nick Griffin (British National Party) and David Irving (Holocaust denier) to speak on the motion "This House believes that even extremists should be entitled to free speech." Plenty of people around the country believe that the answer is "no", and have tried to get the forum shut down. Their efforts were defeated in yesterday's vote.

My views on this aren't a secret: I believe that the truth will always win out in the end, and that unrestricted freedom of debate is our best defence against racism and falsehood. Many thanks to Millennium Elephant for his kind support.

Union members clearly agree with that position. The Union held a referendum yesterday to let the membership decide whether or not the President, Luke Tryl, was justified in inviting the controversial pair. Tryl promised to cancel Monday's forum if the members voted against him, effectively turning the poll into a confidence motion. He won through, and from memory, the vote split 1066 to 640. (The first one is a very memorable number indeed!) The Free Speech Forum goes ahead as planned, and after queueing for an hour in the cold yesterday morning, your favourite blogger has a ticket.

Nevertheless, I'm starting to have serious misgivings about the forum. Irving and Griffin will be debating against a couple of DPhil students, because no mainstream political speakers would touch the Free Speech Forum with a ten-foot battle lance. This is a truly grotesque situation. It mystefies me how the local MPs, the anti-fascist groups around the country, the Jewish and Muslim communities, and the reprehensible Oxford University Student Union are prepared to man the barricades outside the Oxford Union with their placards, but aren't willing to go inside and take on Griffin and Irving. Are they really happy to stand outside the debating chamber massaging their egos, whilst racism and lies go unchallenged inside it?

Unrestricted free debate is a fundamental right, but in order to work, it needs citizens who are prepared to engage with views they find offensive. Everyone can chip in and have their say, so falsehoods don't stand up to scrutiny for very long. It's self-regulating in much the same way as the blogosphere: if I posted factually inaccurate statements on this website, somebody would post a comment debunking me within minutes. But when you isolate and ignore offensive attitudes instead of arguing with them, you undermine the whole system. By refusing to debate against the BNP, the tolerant political mainstream is guilty of serious dereliction of duty.

There's a battle being waged right now across the streets of Britain: a battle of racial tolerance against racist hatred. That battle crucially needs to be won, for the good of every minority group in Britain, and for the benefit of all of us whose lives are enriched by a diverse and welcoming society. But Unite Against Fascism are like an army who refuse to take to the field for fear of getting their hands dirty. That sort of smugness and complacency, in the face of such a serious threat to our way of life, is unforgivable.

Every time the BNP speak, at any sort of public forum, debate or event whatsoever, we have a duty to pit someone against them. That we cannot find one single speaker from the political mainstream prepared to hold the BNP to account is an utter disgrace.

UPDATE: Contrary to earlier reports that he had pulled out, it appears that Evan Harris, the Lib Dem MP for Oxford West, will be speaking at the event.


Curt said...

They "aren't willing to go inside and take on Griffin and Irving" because "you gain the stature of the enemy with whom you wrestle." To validate these nitwits, as though there were actually something to debate, is to give them what they want. And in addition to free speech "rights" we have the free speech responsibility to vote with our feet. Go there and you're voting for them. Don't go, and you're voting against them. That's not to say the government (especially) should forbid them to speak - I've fought against that for a while now. But allowing them to speak, or keep the government from disallowing it, and SUPPORTING it, are quite different. The ability to make that kind of distinction should be something you develop during university. The only question is, have you developed it yet?

Jonny Wright said...

What planet are you living on Curt?

"as though there were actually something to debate" - unless I missed a meeting, the BNP got nearly two hundred thousand votes at the last general election. They've clearly won a lot of people over to their point of view, which is extremely worrying.

I'm amazed and appalled at the arrogance of the anti-fascist groups, who believe that we have a god-given right to crush the BNP. We don't! If we want to beat racism, we have to engage with its arguments. Those 200,000 people won't come back to the tolerant mainstream if the mainstream refuses on point of principle to explain why it's in the right, and why the BNP are in the wrong.


Jeremy said...

Point 1) Apart from everything else Jonny, you are missing one fundamental point: The forum is about the limits of free speech and Irving/ Griffin will be arguing that there should be no limits. All your arguments here indicate that you agree with them. How then will you be "defeating them in debate"?

Point 2) Perhaps in a political debate, you may be right that we should challenge their views, however illogical- however, in an academic debate, there is no way to debate with those impervious to reason, whose starting point is not to accept that all have equal rights- rights you wish to uphold, but they wish to deny!

Point 3) As for deriliction of duty - this is SO terribly contradictory and offensive that I almost (!) find myself unable to respond. Surely as a civil libertarian you would argue in favour of autonomy and so, how can you suggest ANYONE has a duty to do something they don't want to. The fact that SO many people agree that there is nothing to be gained by "debating" these men in this contrived and irresponsible forum, should tell you that maybe it is you that is in deriliction of your duty- to stand up and say in a firm voice, that we will not entertain their lunacy, especially in a forum intrisically flawed by the fact that it is set up to get the audience to agree with them (i.e. that free speech should be a universal and unqualified right!)

Anonymous said...

You're not going to beat fascism with a debate at the Oxford Union. That's not to say that you don't engage with their arguments. UAF which you so glibly dismiss organise grassroots campaigning across the country in communities that the BNP have got a foothold in. That's the way we defeat the BNP - voter, by voter - exposing the myths and lies that they peddle.

Inviting them to speak at the Oxford Union gives them publicity and legitimacy. As Barking shows where the BNP are legitimised and treated as any other political party they do a lot better than when they are marginalised.

But given your smug superiority I take it you've done quite a lot of campaigning against the BNP.

Allan said...

I agree with much of what you say but I always have a crisis of faith with freedom of speech when people who would deny it to others demand that it apply to them.

On balance, I support the Union in its initial actions, but I'm not sure it's sensible to have Griffin and Irving debate with postgraduate students rather than experienced academics.

I sympathise with Curt's point that "we have the free speech responsibility to vote with our feet", although I don't think that by going you're showing support for either Griffin or Irving. However, I think a full house at the debate (surely a certainty) will say different things to different people: some (not many, and certainly not me) will see it as tacit support of their views; some (like you, Jonny) will see it as support for the principle of free speech; I see it as an example of the human obsession with the extreme. People love to see unusual things, from medieval public beheading, through Victorian freak shows, to modern phenomena like Jackass and the weirder side of "YouTube". If you disagree at this point, think whether there would be such a furore if Denis MacShane and Patrick Mercer were invited? (I chose those two MPs purely as random examples of boring politicians!)

So, I can only hope that they get a verbal battering at the Union - otherwise my faith in free speech will be massively diminished.

lee said...

'There's a battle being waged right now across the streets of Britain: a battle of racial tolerance against racist hatred. That battle crucially needs to be won, for the good of every minority group in Britain' - what about the good of the majority group, the indigenous Britons?

Additionally as Jeremy has stated, since it is not going to be a debate about BNP policy or Irving's eccentric and unpalatable views, but a forum on freedom of speech whereby the two guest speakers will be talking about their experiences of freedom of speech and its suppression, you will probably end up agreeing with every word that they say.

I hope you enjoy the debate and that it remains peaceful.

Andromeda said...

"I may disagree with you with what you say, but would defend to the death your right to say it."

(atributed to Voltaire)

Free speech for Unpopular People with Unpopular Views! (This might be you, one day.)

Should David Irving and Nick Griffin be allowed to participate in a debate on free speech at the Oxford Union?

Vote on this, and other controversial matters, at

Anonymous said...

I think there are quite probably more eloquent defenders of freedom of speech than messrs Irving and Griffin. It seems merely an excercise in contrarian controversiality.

I agree that groups like Unite Against Fascism, if they think Irving and Griffin shouldn't be invited to speak, should actually defend their views on limits of freedom of speech. But we have to ask ourselves who will come out of the debate victorious. It is invariably those proposing freedom of speech, while those who seek to limit it - such as UAF - tend to lose.

Why is the Oxford Union gifting hypocrites and bigots like Griffin and Irving an easy topic to defend such a freedom of speech? Why aren't their views in issues such as race, immigration, the holocaust and all the rest of it being debated? If that were going to happen, i could see the logic of inviting them so they can hang themselves with their own weird logic and non-arguments. Turning them into freedom of speech crusaders seems highly unwise.

James Graham said...

Jonny, this is getting silly. A "duty" to engage and debate with Griffin and Irving? I thought you were a civil libertarian? What's all this New Labour stuff about duties?

As Iain Sharpe reminds us, people who argue with Irving tend to find themselves in the libel courts.

What does a mainstream politician gain by having a row with a bigot? Not a lot? What does the bigot gain? Credibility.

There is nothing to be gained by talking up the threat of people like Griffin. Margaret Hodge is a good case in point. She went around in 2004 claiming that vast numbers of her constituents were considering voting BNP and found herself being selectively quoted back in BNP leaflets.

If we have a duty to do something, or rather enlightened self interest, it is to organise across the country and ensure that the BNP doesn't end up getting elected unopposed (as happened in Wiltshire this year) or up against a single party ("them" versus "us" always benefits the far right). If the Lib Dems for example were in a stronger position in Barking for example, politicians such as Jon Cruddas might end up hating our guts, but I can guarantee BNP support would melt away. That's politics.

Having a pointless debate in the Ivory towers of academia achieves nothing.

Jonny Wright said...

Bizarre ... I argue for unrestricted freedom of debate, I point out (quite reasonably I think) that free debate doesn't do anyone any good if we don't actually engage in the argument - and then I get told off for not being *enough* of a civil libertarian?!

I'm quite literally stuck for words.

philp said...

There is a degree of naivety here. Whilst we cannot blanket censor people with whom we disagree, we should not feel guilty about opposing their invitation to our private members' club. There is a quantum leap between the 2.
Of course nobody would go into the chamber and debate with them. Notwithstanding the arguments about dignifying their presence with ours, it would be a total lost cause to enter into debate with them. Their views will not at any stage be under discussion. The subject is free speech and so they will gain the kudos of the invite without being forced to defend their absurd and vicious views.
Speakers should be invited based on their ability to contribute to the topic. As everyone knows these 2 are hardly blessed with specialist technical knowledge on free speech. They were invited in order that members could revel in the spectacle of a bust-up and the President could raise his own personal profile. The way people have massaged his ego by congratulating his media appearances is only making this worse. The President has brought this issue to raise his own personal profile. When one considers the effect this has had on the termcard with the number of people pulling out as a result I think his behaviour is totally improper. I have no doubt tomorrow will end in a debacle and the Union's credibility will suffer further.

Fayyaz Muneer said...

My problem with them coming is the blatant hypocrisy in Tryl's justification. He offers us a bloodbath of their views, saying how Oxford's ingenious students will ridicule their views (ie on Fascism, the Holocaust), then reassures the worried that they won't be promulgating their views, its about free speech. How can I take issue with Irving's abhorrent views in a debate not about his views. And if I can take issue with Irving's abhorrent views, am I not allowing him to talk idiot-history on the large soapbox of the Oxofrd Unio?. One way or another, there is a large contradiction, and Tryl is the chief proponent of it.

Anonymous said...

I don't see anything wrong with Luke Tryl doing this to raise his public profile. Today's world of graduate recruitment is extremely competitive, even at the top end, and it is essential to do whatever it takes to stand out head and shoulders above your rivals. I think speaking live on BBC News and being interviewed by the international press is not a bad way to do that, and Luke Tryl should only be congratulated for his savviness here, not lambasted. Greg

Nick Coxon said...

I'm in agreement with Fayyaz Muneer. Tomorrow's debate is not entitled "is fascism a good thing?" - if it were, we'd be able to defeat the views of such horrific people as Nick Griffin and David Irving. Instead, it is a "free speech forum", and Griffin/Irving, so far as I am aware, are speaking on the side of free speech. I'd actually go further than Fayyaz, and say that because ostensibly Griffin/Irving are speaking in favour of free speech, they probably will gain the agreement of much of the audience, the vast majority of whom will, whilst disagreeing with their fascist views, agree with their right to express them.

But in truth, the invitations should never have been given. Free speech is an important right. But 'the right to speak at the Oxford Union' is not the same thing as that. By inviting these people to a chamber which has, in the last 7 weeks, hosted no fewer than 5 national Presidents or Prime Ministers, we give legitimacy to their views. Whether or not we "crush them in debate", we still are giving them a platform - and worse, we are giving them one of the most well-thought-of, prestigious platforms of all.

Luke Tryl should be ashamed. But I don't doubt he is happy with himself. He has achieved notoriety, and with it, fame. This, I fear, was his true aim. With little regard for the reputation of the Union, its members, and the university, he has sought to maximise publicity for himself. It sickens me that he has all but achieved his goal.

Anonymous said...

Gd Day Jonny,

Your argument for free speech and free debate is based on the assumption that such free debate will always lead to the truth coming through in the end. Therefore, you argue in favour of the BNP leader and the Holocaust denier coming to speak at the union, as, I assume, you believe they will be shown to hold falsehoods.

However, there are two clear problems with your argument:

1) It is not a tautology that truth will always come through in a free and open debate;
2) As the Monday debate is about free speech, and not about 'is the bnp right', there will be few opportunities to properly scrutinise our guests, and therefore to show that they hold what we believe to be falsehoods.

So, in light of the above, particularly point 2), why are you in favour of the debate? What possible benefits can you see being derived?

If you changed the name of the debate to ‘Should we have a monoethnic Britain’, then fair enough. I would understand why you supported the debate, because we would have the opportunity to crush their arguments – a facet of debate which you value. But this will not happen. So, I ask again, why do you support the debate?

Charlie Cooke said...

Johnny, I am 100% behind you. The only way to win, rather than push underground or obfuscate these people is to genuinely win the argument against them. For that, you need freedom, you need liberty and you need the likes of you and I to stand up and say 'yes, I believe in your right to say what you will, but dear God do I oppose you. And dear God will I use the same freedom I have defended for you to bring you down in front of the people of this country'. I see no greater advocate of this than you, and I am proud to be your friend.


Guessedworker said...

Curt writes: unrestricted freedom of debate is our best defence against racism and falsehood

That, bereft of its moral context, would be true. But since it is couched in the assumption that Nick Griffin is "racist", and "racism" is "falsehood", it isn't really true at all.

Curt is not open to the understanding that the English have natural rights and interests that are mechanically and ritualistically demonised and ruled a priori illegitimate.

Actually listening to the advocacy of those rights and interests - which are, of course, permitted to Israeli Jews, Ivorians, Japanese, Mexicans ... you name it - is a revolutionary act in the liberal zeitgeist. One must consider the racism of those who do not tolerate English rights and interests. One must consider the whole meaning and drift of liberalism, the nature of democracy and the political class - left and right - and the greater political and demographic purpose of post-War immigration.

On the heels of these new considerations come many matters which, hitherto, have been the source of a truly Pavlovian and unfree moral reaction. Indeed, what was moral becomes less moral and what was tolerant becomes intolerant, and vica versa.

At this point, and only this point, is hearing unfettered enough to render free-speech a true deliverance from bias and prejudice.

glad thereafter said...

Jonny, I’m reposting here something similar to my earlier post which vanished. I had basically asked you to give some consideration as to how the bizarre circumstances you describe have come about.

How have the self-described liberal, anti-racist, progressive, and free-thinking organisations come to engage in terror-tactics silencing dissent; to support laws criminalising unorthodox historiography; and to oppose parties principally concerned with defending native people’s control of their homeland?

These question must particularly perplex you, a politicised Jew, as they do me, a politicised Englishman.

You are in the rather remarkable position of belonging to a community almost entirely committed to the validity of their own ethnic nationalism while collectively being rather reluctant to live in your achieved nation-state or to support the ethnic nationalism of other peoples; of belonging to a community whose ethnic nationalism is supported by leaders of communities who passionately oppose the ethnic nationalisms of their own people (of whom I am one); and of belonging to a community which is extremely liberal, anti-racist, and progressive, except where ethnic self-interest enters the debate.

As an English nationalist I do not argue for what most Jews and Lab/Con/Lib currently defend, for I do not seek to impose a racist double standard. I merely argue that my people should enjoy what most Jews and the leaders of Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems say the Jewish people must enjoy - a homeland devoted to the security and continuity of the English.

Might your ‘anti-racist’ efforts find a more appropriate target rather closer to home rather than in attacking the BNP? Should you start with your fellow Lib Dems and Jews and when those battles are won look outward to people like the BNP who currently don't even seek effective parity with Israel?

Or is this not a moral issue, but a party political and ethnic one?

glad thereafter said...

BBC Question Time tonight gave support to Guessedworker's argument.

The panel unanimously approached the question of Griffin and Irving's appearances (specifically in defence of 'free speech') with regard to their supposedly abhorrent, extremist, violent views. I lost count of the references to Hitler.

So Pavlovian, unfree moral reactions all-around.

And naturally, no-one pointed out that Griffin's ethnic-nationalism attracts pavlovian, unfree moral support for certain other peoples; nor dared offer Christopher Hitchens', the law's, or Irving's own opinion that he, Irving, does not 'deny the Holocaust'.

Frightening stuff for the free and informed.