Monday, November 26, 2007


My son is walking the streets of Oxford with hundreds of other students who are protesting against the Oxford Union’s decision to allow Holocaust revisionist David Irving and Nick Griffin (leader of the BNP) to address students tonight. Unlike most of his friends, who are protesting against the decision, my son thinks they should be allowed to speak. It is a difficult position to maintain. He is nominally a member of the Jewish Society who have written an impassioned letter on behalf of their members, one which probably reflects the views of most of them, but not my son, who thinks that there is a frenzy being whipped up which is preventing people from thinking. Me, I don’t know what to think about it, or I change my mind hourly. I think there are intelligent and moral reasons why they should not be given space to put their views, that these things can't be separated from the real world and made to look as though it's all ok and legit, even though the subject is Free Speech. On the other hand, I regret the fact that the people who might have spoken against them have withdrawn – that an opportunity may have been missed. And what with one thing and another – death threats to students from neo nazis – I am hoping that things don’t turn nasty.


Kahless said...

I hope things didn't turn out nasty; let us know how it went.

It is definately a hard one and I must admit I struggle to know which side of the fence to stand. On the one hand I believe balanced education is far better than ignorance, there is freedom of speech and if you gag on these people you can end up giving them more focus and attention.

However, some things are just intolerable and should firmly be said NO to.

Reading the Signs said...

Hi Kahless,

I have a permanently sore bum from sitting on the fence and with this I've been yes, but no, but yes, but no etc. Husband was on the side of those who demonstrated and son was for allowing the speakers to go ahead.

Things did turn nasty, but not dangerously so. My son forwarded an email from someone who was there and actually got in to hear the talk that ensued. Very interesting stuff - and clearly Irving's views were exposed and challenged by those who were there.

Anonymous said...

It is admirable that your son is standing up for their right to speak, especially if he disagrees with their point of view. Everyone should have that right. Your son seems to be fighting for the "right to think" and that is an admirable cause. At the same token too, in fighting for that right for balance viewpoints, it seems silly to be reduced to only that opinion. I hope that some philosophical oppostion occurs -- in the manner of a dignified and rational speaker, as opposed to a crowd with clubs.

You have a courageous son. I hope things remain calm, for son and mother, and for rational thinking.

cusp said...

Personally I think that a) everyone has a right to speak and b) if you don't let people like Irving speak then he turns into a kind of martyr and it also prevents him for making an ass of himself by speaking and letting everyone see how deluded and dangerous he really is

Reading the Signs said...

Thanks, David and Cusp,

At the moment husband and son are on different sides of the barricades, so to speak. It will make for interesting debate when he gets home at the weekend.

fluttertongue said...

I think I'm actually with your husband on this - free speech is far too often used as a blanket without people considering the complexity of individual situations. I have been to debates and talks given by people with whom I do not agree but in this case we are not talking about intellectuals debating hypothetical notions, but a successful propagandist of an extreme political position - one that is offensive to a large proportion of the population.

Reading the Signs said...

Hi Fluttertongue,

Yes, and the extreme political position is also one that would, given a chance, itself lead to the suppression of free speech.

But I'm still on the fence about whether it's right to permit the platform or not.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

It's a tough call isn't it. I think one has to draw the line at hate speech, but then again, one wants this stuff out in the open so we all know what's going down. And if there are people who can and will speak in opposition, so much the better. We have to find ways to learn from mistakes of the past - if we shut up the dissenting voices can we ever really learn? I think your son is taking a courageous and wise position.

Reading the Signs said...

Hi Vanilla,

Thanks for the comment. I'll pass it on to son. Hope you're better.

That's so pants said...

Hi Signs

As I understand it, the debate was about 'free speech'. I agree it's problematic to mount a protest against certain 'points of view' in that context.

Having said that, it's not entirely an academic argument, in which case it would be very simple. You'd let the idiots have their say and then wipe the floor with them. Who better to do that than the 'cleverest' young people in Britain at the Oxford Union?

But it isn't that simple. The cleverest young people in Germany in the early 1930s couldn't out-argue the fascists. I think we need to be both tough and careful about how we deal with the multiple challenges to the freedoms and liberties we hold so dear.



Son of Signs said...

Having spent most of the last couple of weeks talking about this, it's nice to be home and away from it all, although here I am, going on about it once again...

Thankfully, it did pass "peacefully", if this is understood to mean that no one got hurt. The demo was, in fact, far from sedate, and I feel pretty strongly about some of the stupid things that were done by some that evening. But this is all less interesting than the original question of whether they should have been invited.

I think that the most effective way to combat any point of view is through debate, and that the possible negative consequences of this (increased exposure, the 'legitimacy' that the Union apparently confers, etc) are greatly out-weighed by the long term positive effects. For example, if, as a result of this, the BNP does very well at the next election, this will only highlight the fact that racism is really quite deeply rooted in Britain, and with this insight, measures can be taken to better educate those who still hold these out-dated and nasty views. It will also highlight the fact that the people who vote BNP are usually elderly members of the white working class who feel let down by the government, and society in general. This is another big issue that needs attention.

It's interesting to see that Pants made the distinction between the intellectual and non-intellectual side of this. It's something that a lot of people have been doing, often saying that I am over-intellectualising this, and putting noble 'principles' of free speech above common sense, emotion and the facts of the matter. I think this is a mistake, since these principles are there to reflect the facts. Free speech really does lead to positive practical consequences, and history supports this. It's not a guarentee; as Pants rightly said, intelligent debate didn't stop the Nazis, but free speech has ALWAYS been a positive influence. As for common sense and a gut-feeling response, I think in this situation that can be dangerous. There are so many emotive layers to this problem, since fascists stir up such personal and strong feelings in all of us. My emotional response is to silence every last one of these bastards, but my experiences and reasoning make me think that they should be aloud, and what's more, given the oportunity, to speek publicly.

The Union debate on its own is arguably not going to do much, in fact, on its own, it may have more negative results than positive, but that's why it shouldn't be the last time we cross paths with people we disagree with in debate. Real progress will only be made when engaging in debate with fascists and the like is no longer contraversial. If it is normal to do this, people will discover freely for themselves how daft it all is.

I know I've gone on and on, so I'll stop here. It's nice that people are interested in this story. Given that the topic is about the merits and limits of free speech, it would be a shame if no one had anything to say on the matter...

Son of Signs

fluttertongue said...

Dear Son of Signs,
Firstly, let me say that I understand your position and I am impressed by your willingness to go against the grain. However, for the sake of playing devil's advocate I have the following questions:
Do you not feel that 'free speech' has developed a normative aspect that it never was meant to have? Should we not regard it as a negative - ie, one should not be prevented from having a voice, rather than a positive, ie, one should be given a platform to air one's views, no matter how unsavoury, issue?
We know the views of the BNP. And no matter how noble the idea of debating against them, the wider public will not get to hear the debate, rather they will only know that Griffin et al have been invited to speak. Do you believe society will view this incident as one which encourages debate or one which merely gives publicity to an extreme political party.

Having put this out there, I think my problem with the scenario is not that these two are on the far end of the right wing, which is a reasonable place to be, politically speaking, but that Griffin, at least, has been caught on camera airing views that are, really, incitement to racial hatred (alas in this case I am of the opinion that the courts failed in their duty to convict him), and is known, not because he wishes to see a fairer and more peaceful society - through rather controversial means of course - but because he wishes harm upon whole sections of society because of their ethnicity.

Apologies, Signs, for taking up a huge wad of comment space!

Reading the Signs said...

Hi Flutter - be my guest! I'll show S of S what you said.

That's so pants said...

Hi Signs and SOS (who is playing you in the movie btw)?

I'd like to include Fluttertounge as well if I may. Although imperfect, the line is drawn by the law. As Fluttertounge points out, prosecution under the race/hate legislation is not always successful, however, the point is that the BNP doesn't need to be legitimised by public opinion. It's a bona fide political party with the right to publicise itself and its points of view - within the confines of the law. Any daft bugger can vote for them and plenty of them do.

On Question Time the other night, two MPs expressed extreme distaste at the thought of having to share a platform with Griffin and Irving but said they could, should and would and debate them if they came to their own constituencies. I should bally well hope so too. Distaste isn't actually life threatening as far as I know. They should be thankful they aren't councillors in Barking and Dagenham where they'd have to share their council chamber with a dozen or so of them.

I agree with SOS on this one. Localised support for BNP candidates is a warning sign and should be taken very seriously indeed. I've worked in two councils where there were BNP councillors, including the one where I am currently. At a 'Community Cohesion' (don't laugh, seriously) conference where I was facilitating a workshop group on Friday, a white resident who was represented by the BNP told our group that he'd gained support because housing was very poor in their area and the BNP had capitalised on the perception that the best housing was going to immigrants. He also passed out leaflets publicising an anti-BNP group of which he was a member. He is doing something about it. In Bethnal Green where I worked in 1992, the BNP guy only lasted a term. They tend not to be very good constituency reps and get booted out at the next election.

Now I'm taking up too much space. I think the situation with the BNP is one for concern rather than panic.



fluttertongue said...

Pants - I totally agree that the issue needs to be addressed. I lived in an area where the BNP had support from a largely invisible white underclass, with whom I was working, many of whom rarely came into contact with anyone from an ethnic minority. Their basic human needs were not being addressed and the BNP had taken that on board and found a scapegoat for their propaganda. So there is certainly a hole that needs to be filled.
But I'd rather hear from one of them than from a BNP representative. And I'd rather the debate take place in a less sensationalised, more accessible arena.

Reading the Signs said...

Hi Pants and Fluttertongue - thanks for the comments which SOS read late last night before packing to go to Sweden early this morning, so no time to reply.

Pants, I know who could play SOS but don't think I'll say in case he comes back and reads this: but the words Lord and Rings might give you a hint.

Me? I haven't got a clue. A cross between Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes.

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