Should Hitler have been able to speak at the Oxford Union?


@JimACEverett

 www.jimaceverett.com

The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) recently voted to “condemn” the invitation of Marine LePen to speak at the Oxford Union (which is an entirely separate organization, for those outside of Oxford). In addition to condemning LePen and the Union for inviting her, the OUSU President was mandated to send an emergency letter (i.e. a letter that comes outside the normal weekly bulletins, and usually happens when a person is missing or there is an emergency). I was informed that as a student union, “we” had voted to condemn LePen and the Union for giving her a platform and were encouraged to protest. To what extent is this true? Had the Union, in inviting her, legitimised her politics?

As I understand it, this movement is based on the idea that freedom of speech does not include “the right of fascists to a platform for their views”. The argument seems to be that by inviting LePen and giving her a “platform”, the Oxford Union “legitimises” her views and thus implicitly supports fascism. As one of the proposers of the motion is reported in The Guardian,

XXX, a history and politics student, said she was disgusted that Le Pen could “now go back to France and say she has been invited to speak at Oxford University. That is the kind of legitimacy that is allowing her and her abhorrent party to become acceptable.”

The endorsed protest quickly turned sour, with people in balaclavas attacking non-protesting students, calls for the murder of LePen, breaking into the Union grounds, and barring people from entering the chamber to hear LePen. Naturally, there was a large police presence to keep the peace. One of the key messages of the protest was that LePen is like Hitler and so should be treated as a Nazi. Prominent chants were reported as being

 “Marine Le Pen, we know you, Daddy was a fascist too”, “Nazi scum, off our streets”, and “Follow your leader, shoot yourself like Adolf Hitler”.

To what extent did the Union legitimise LePen by inviting her? My thoughts on this are that it was right for LePen to be invited to the Oxford Union because she is a prominent (i.e. influential, public figure) European politician. Recent polls suggest that LePen comes out on top as the choice for the next French President, and her party recently excelled in the European Elections. To my mind, this means that LePen already has a platform and is a legitimate politician, and to that end it is perfectly acceptable to invite her. I think the Union was clear that it doesn’t endorse her policies (thank God!), but that her views should still be heard. Once invited, LePen has a right not to be silenced (though not, it seems, a right to be invited in the first place).

All of this then made me question how I would feel if, in 1933 Hitler had been invited to the Union. At a personal level, I would feel it distasteful, and for good reason – I would most likely have been one of those exterminated in the Holocaust. But do I think that it would be wrong because this would “platform” him and legitimise the Nazi views? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that in this context, Hitler was a legitimate politician – he was Chancellor of Germany! His views were already becoming worryingly apparent and his ideology morally warped, but does this mean he wasn’t a real politician? I don’t think so. As I think about this hypothetical case, I wonder how I would have responded. And I think that, ultimately, if I ignore my feelings, I would have supported an invitation of Hitler to the Oxford Union in the early 1930s. Would speaking at the Union legitimise Hitler, given that he was already a prominent politician in Germany? This seems unlikely to me. Hitler, at that time, was already a legitimate political figure, and thus already had a platform. In the same way, I think the OUSU endorsed condemnation of ‘platforming’ LePen is fundamentally flawed. LePen already has a platform, and is already a legitimate politician. That we dislike it doesn’t make it not so.

It seems to me that freedom of speech, particularly in the context of politics and democracy, is a fundamental moral principle and shouldn’t be abandoned based on our feelings of whether we like the speaker or not. To quote George Orwell, “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. I do not like LePen, and would never vote for her, but as the leader of a major political party she deserves the right to be heard and not silenced. Such are the principles of democracy. It may not be great in all situations, but it’s probably the best option we have.

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8 Responses to Should Hitler have been able to speak at the Oxford Union?

  • Sarah says:

    I suppose one way to prevent people from voting for a candidate is if other countries indicate that they will refuse to work with them in any form, whether at government level or in other ways. So although they may be legitimate as a politician and already have a platform, it shows their electorate that they will not be able to do an effective job because even if they are taken seriously nationally, internationally they will be laughed out of town.

    • Hi Sarah,

      That is a good point, and one I hadn’t thought of. I suppose I’d say, though, that this is more likely to be an effective justification for banning them at an official / state level – for example, David Cameron not meeting with her. I’m not sure that speaking at a debating society is going to be that important for the French people in considering Le Pen as a international politician (but that is just my hunch).

    • Alex says:

      However, the problem isn’t being laughed out of town, it is becoming a victim and a martyr for one’s view shoring up support. This is why wholesale blockades and embargoes do not work; look no further than Cuba and Russia. I am sure that Mssrs Castro and Putin know they have done very well at home from their ‘expulsion’ from the Concert of Civilised Nations.

  • Brasso says:

    I think your analysis of the rights at play here – and your use of the word “right” – is a bit squiffy. Le Pen’s prominence might mean that there is a reason to invite her, but it doesn’t follow that it’s right to do so – that would indicate that the Union would have violated a duty had the invitation not been issues, which seems implausible; and if a duty had been violated, then doesn’t that mean that a heck of a lot more people ought to be invited? It’s hard to see, though, how simply being prominent generates an entitlement to speak at the OU. Hence it’s not clear that the OU was right to invite her, though it may have had a right.

    Neither is it wholly clear that anyone has a right to be heard. They might have a right not to be silenced – but that’s a different thing. By not offering Le Pen a platform, she would not have been silenced (as you admit, she’s done fine so far without the OU’s help!); she would simply not have had the opportunity to speak at a given venue. Since the OU is, in effect, a private club*, it’s not inviting her is really no different from my not inviting her to speak in my dining room. If the OU is a public institution, then things might be slightly different – but I’m still not wholly sure that that’d extend to her having a right to address it, any more than I do. And even if there is a right to be heard, it doesn’t follow that the OU is the body to facilitate it. (If noone else would, and the OU were the last possible venue, there might be a problem – but it’s not a problem anyone actually faces in the real world.)

    You do moderate your rights claim and move to talking about it being acceptable to invite her; I think that that’s more likely to be true. But I’m not sure that the reasons you’ve offered actually get you to that conclusion – surely prominence isn’t sufficient to ensure acceptability? We can all think of people who are prominent and monsters – prominent because they’re monsters. For example, Rose West would be prominent in some respects. It’s not clear that that prominence would be sufficient reason to invite in her case – even if she ever got parole. This is not to say that there mightn’t be reasons to invite her: I don’t know what they’d be, but there could be such things. But they would have to be weighed without reference to her prominence; prominence itself wouldn’t be a reason to invite her. Why would it be different for Le Pen?

    *I’m right about that, aren’t I? I don’t know: I’m a chippy provincial who was and is too thick for Oxford and on whom any education whatsoever would be wasted. I’ve no idea how it works down there.

    • Hi Brasso,

      Thanks for commenting. I think you’re absolutely right that LePen doesn’t have a “right” to speak in the OU in the sense that the Union are obligated in some way to invite her. I don’t think that is the case, and would have bene perfectly happy had they not decided to invite her (or any number of other people). I also don’t think the Union is obligated to invite Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Communist party, or even cultural figures like Eddie Redmayne or Lady Gaga. That said, if the Union committee gauges there would be enough interest to justify them extending an invitation, I think that is perfectly acceptable and once that happens and the speaker accepts, then their right to be heard comes into play. So I think you’re correct in suggesting she doesn’t have a right to be heard, but rather a right not to be silenced. I should have clarified this in the original post.

      The Union is primarily a debating society, and I think therefore that politicians are fair game to invite. I suppose when I say ‘prominent’, I mean something along the lines of ‘influential at a national / international stage’. I think that Rose West wouldn’t be an appropriate invitation in that sense because while she is infamous, she isn’t influential and a bona-fide ‘public figure’. LePen could well be the next President of France, and for that reason it seems that she is a perfectly legitimate figure to invite and shouldn’t be silenced.
      In the same way, I think it distasteful that Robert Griffiths (head of UK Communist party) was invited because he has said a number of things that can be taken as being a Stalinist-apologist (Stalin and his party apparently did “the best in those circumstances”: http://www.varsity.co.uk/news/2634). But again, once he is invited I don’t think that he should be silenced. I mean, in many ways, inviting him is giving him more of a ‘platform’ and legitimisation than with LePen because she is a much more prominent public figure (most Brits, let alone people in other countries, don’t know who Griffiths is).

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    It seems that there is a “maximal inclusive set” of people and views consisting of those willing to tolerate the other members of the set – they might hate each other or each other’s views, but not so much that they cannot accept being in the same community or institutional structure. LePen is clearly playing within the standard western democratic institutional structure, accepting roughly the same rules as any other politician. The baclava people are not part of this set and do not respect the institutional structure. One might argue that Hitler rather clearly would have aimed to overthrow the structure and once in power let intolerance reign, but at least in 1933 he had not done so yet. So in a way it would make sense to invite Hitler and LePen to talk at the OU, but not the baclava people.

    Of course, the question is whether the above set of mutual tolerance closely corresponds to the de facto adherence to the rules of polite and open society. There may be non-transitive aspects where group A accepts B who accepts A and C, but C, accepting B, does not accept A. In practice a surprisingly large set of people actually get along in most societies despite enormous foundational differences, likely because they both recognize the benefit of being part of a functioning society and because they recognize the cost of battling it out with too many other groups. When the OUSU denounces LePen and OU they are likely not going to pay a long term cost – they signal the right values to most people, and any quarrel with OU or LePen is likely soon forgotten. It would be a far more convincing case if they were actually willing to do a costly effort such as ban joint membership or get into a physical brawl, but it might not be rational for the OUSU nor actually affect the world in a good direction.

    Many right-wing movements in Europe today (for example, Pegida and the Sweden Democrats) are using the claim that they are denied platforms to get credibility as outsider underdogs struggling against the Establishment. So from an empirical standpoint, denying platforms may actually be a worse strategy than debating odious views.

  • Hi Anders,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Your point about ingroup signalling is very interesting, and is actually something I’ve been thinking of pursuing in my own research. It seems to me that much of the protesting by certain groups in Oxford is less about enacting change, but more about signalling to their ‘comrades’ (as they say) that they will espouse the correct party line. It does always seem rather 1984 to me; the emphasis is less on doing the right thing, but in saying to their comrades that they are a true party member and committed to their battle. It’s a very interesting phenomena.

    I also think you are absolutely right about certain right-wing movements using their denial of ‘platforms’ as a tool. I think this is a big driver of the rise of (for example) UKIP: the average person feels that the metropolitan liberal London elite do not respect their views, and moreover, seek to deny them the opportunity to present their views – or, for that matter, even think them privately. From an empirical standpoint, I think the protestors plans backfire.

  • Philip says:

    Dear Jim

    I read your last post with interest.

    It is a very worrying sign of the times to see that some of Oxford’s brightest young things seem genuinely appalled at Marine Le Pen being given a platform to express her views. What exactly are they so offended by in her views? She doesn’t support mass murder, as did Blair. You would think that Rose West had been invited; the angry mob outside the Oxford Union behaved like those tabloid mentality crowds typically seen banging on the prison vans as they escort heinous criminals away from British courts.

    The Western mind has been so blunted by political correctness in the space of less than half a century that it now seems beyond even the sharp brains of some Oxford students to understand that Marine Le Pen’s views aren’t the danger; the danger is the Orwellian nightmare of State institutions, not least from Europe, that have rendered us so ashamed to be free, white, British & Christian.

    In my view, Oxford Union did a wonderful job in inviting Marine Le Pen to speak. Sadly, some of the University’s thugs were an EDLesque embarrassment; a wart on that great institution’s tradition of free thought (of which they are evidently incapable) & free speech. The good news, as you point out, is that the unthinking & thuggish representatives of the thought police (as we saw at UKIP’s Rotherham shop yesterday) are actually now damaging their own cause.

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