Some interesting debate has been bubbling away about tonight’s debate at the Oxford Union. Racist politician Nick Griffin and Holocaust denier David Irving are in the line up for a debate about free speech.
I paid over a hundred quid for membership to the Union and all I got was a bent spoon from Uri Gellar (I think he mistook my hysterical laughter at his act for awe), so I have sympathy with those who urge us not to give the institution so much respect and attention. As Charlie Beckett has pointed out, it is far from the distinguished forum of national debate that it claims to be. It is a school for future MPs, CEOs and professional gas-bags.
In principle I agree with the liberal defenders of the event, but I think many are missing an important part of this particular case: how do we have a useful and enlightening debate about free speech?
The crux of the issue is the appropriate limits to free speech, particularly when we find what is said abhorrent. But Griffin and Irving don’t believe that their views are unacceptable, so they won’t be engaged with the fundamental question that needs tackling. No doubt the debate will descend into acrimony, with them playing the victim and defending their oddball views.
To really address the issue of free speech, I’d like to hear intelligent speakers who are engaged with the issue. Perhaps the defense lawyer for the ‘lyrical terrorist’ who was recently convicted for owning violent and subversive manuals and poetry, or a leading liberal thinker like Alan Ryan or Nancy Rosenblum.
There might be some sort of a case for inviting Griffin to a debate about immigration, or Irving to a debate about the nature of historical enquiry, but I don’t see that they have very much at all to contribute about the nature of free speech in a modern democracy.
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