Defending free speech, promoting debate
Full marks to the Oxford Union for this debate on the Danish cartoons of Mohammed and the limits of free speech. Amongst the speakers was the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper which first published them. Apparently it required extensive security operations owing to the threat perceived by the police. Nonetheless, I am delighted that it went ahead and that a free and open exchange of ideas and arguments was able to take place. The Oxford and Cambridge Unions were founded to debate the issues of the day and promote the ideals of free speech within the country's greatest universities. Many say that although they have a right to invite whoever they want, they shouldn't invite speakers who are too controversial or who offend the sensible liberal values of the establishment. Such "unpleasant" speakers, the thinking goes, have a right to free speech but should not be positively provided with a platform to embellish this right. Unfortunately many who are most vocal in this viewpoint also try to suppress, often violently, the exercise of free speech to impose their views. This was just what happened at the Cambridge Union when I was an undergrad.
I have long rejected this complacent viewpoint. Unless those who hold the most controversial views are faced down, argued with and, ultimately, have their ideas disproved then they become ever more dangerous. Ignoring the BNP won't make them go away, as the Labour Party is discovering to its detriment in Barking & Dagenham. Ignoring questions many people raise about immigration won't make racism any less likely. Ignoring clashes between hardline religious fundamentalists and those who wish to aggressively assert press freedom and the freedom to offend won't resolve the issues or frictions. If what such people say is so tasteless and wrong it should surely be easy to discredit it - if our greatest institutions cannot formulate arguments to show how such repugnant ideas are so misguided, and why, then how can we possibly condemn them as wrong and hope to defeat them? It is only by submitting all ideas to scrutiny that we can reinforce what we believe to be right and establish beyond doubt that which is wrong. The truth surely has nothing to fear from debate.
I'm delighted that the Pub Philosopher reports that the motion that "This house believes free speech should be moderated by respect for religion" was defeated by 129 votes to 59.