Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Nature of freedom

I mentioned in a post at the weekend that in the unlikely event of me attending a demonstration I would advise on appropriate clothing. Watching the hundreds of students, Jewish and Muslim organisations demonstrating outside the Oxford Union on this bitterly cold November night, I can say that appropriate dress is a warm coat, jeans, and sturdy boots. Good for them.

Tonight, at the Oxford Union, the guest speakers will be David Irving, the discredited historian, liar, anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, and Nick Griffin, leader of the fringe British National Party (Britain's rough equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan.) There has been considerable debate about whether such a debate itself should be allowed to take place, with fundamental questions raised by others about freedom of speech.

As a writer,I assert that freedom of expression is the most basic principle of literature, without which there is nothing but propaganda. Nonetheless, as I have pointed out to creative writing students, publishers are not under a legal or commercial obligation to print their work. Norman Geras, as usual, sums up the issues forensically.

Norm says:

Fascists are entitled to free speech if we consider this to be a basic human right. Of course, that right is not absolute; there is a limit that prohibits incitement to violence. But within that limit fascists are - and they should be - free to say what they please. The question why they should be when they would deny the same right to others isn't to the point. You don't have to qualify to enjoy rights of free speech. That's the point of treating them as rights.
He then quotes Peter Tatchell:
'Support for free speech does not oblige the Oxford Union to reward these men with a prestigious public platform, which will give them an air of respectability, raise their public profile and allow them to espouse their intolerant views. It is helping them propagate their bigotry. Not offering hate-mongers a platform is not the same as banning them.'
Precisely so [Norm continues]. The same reasons that told against Columbia University's invitation to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back in September apply in this case.

And that is my view on the matter. You can watch a video discussion on the issue here.

Brian Klug in the Guardian adds:
Either it is the case that Griffin and Irving do not have a right to speak at the Oxford Union, or the fact that I have not been invited constitutes an abrogation of my right to speak.

Unless, of course, a person's right to speak is in direct proportion to the obnoxiousness of their views. No one would consciously subscribe to such a principle, but sometimes it seems as if it has been smuggled in under cover of a noble line from the Enlightenment, usually attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It is almost as if the more I disapprove of what you say, the greater your right to say it. Which we can all see is nonsense. Still, let's spell it out: despite their noxious views, neither Irving nor Griffin has a greater right to be invited to speak at the Oxford Union than countless people whose opinions are decent and humane.
(I could have illustrated this post with a picture of David Irving, I choose not to. That is my freedom.)


Deja Pseu said...

There are many here in the US as well who don't understand that "freedom of speech" does not equal "guarantee of venue."

I'm on the side of those who argue against granting these nutcases any legitimacy.

Camelmeister said...

I am all in favour of allowing individuals to display what complete idiots they are on stage.