No confidence does not mean no platform

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I was struck by an article in the Oxford Student last week condemning the invitation of David Willetts MP to speak as part of a panel discussion on ‘Politics and Language’, capping off former BBC chief Mark Thompson’s lecture series on rhetoric and public policy. Emily Cousens protested the decision to invite Willetts in light of Congregation’s vote of no confidence in him in 2011. For Emily, “Willetts‘ presence as a speaker sends a signal of recognition and condonence for his position and policies.”

Oxford has an established tradition of no platform protests, not only against Willetts but also in more controversial territory, such as when Nick Griffin and David Irving were invited to speak at the Oxford Union in 2007. I am more sympathetic to the Griffin/Irving protestors, because that platform allowed him to advance racist and hurtful views that are widely socially rejected. In general, though, we erred on the side of free speech: we had faith in the audience not to be swayed by their poisonous arguments and to put forward a resounding counter-argument.

The invitation of Nick Griffin to speak at the Oxford Union shows that invitation does not immediately equal endorsement. Public support for the BNP has not exceeded 4% since 2005, so it is improbable that the Oxford Union invited Griffin because they wanted to increase support for the BNP, feeling that exposing students to his ideology would serve that purpose. In 2010, 45% of people polled opposed the tuition fees increase, and 37%  supported it. Although this policy cannot be said to have legitimacy, it has a substantial minority of public support behind it. Griffin is a fringe agitator, and Willetts is a mainstream political presence. If we can invite Griffin without endorsing him, we can do the same with Willetts.

But there’s a broader problem to be explored here. Emily points out the irony that “the broad themes of the lecture series [in which Willetts participated] pertain to the arts, social sciences and humanities – areas of study most at risk of being cut by Willetts due to their ‘unprofitability’.”

I think there is a different, more powerful irony at work here. Mark Thompson’s Humanitas lectures dealt with the importance of public language. On the one hand, its usefulness as a bridge between the public and politicians, and between different groups on the political spectrum. On the other hand, its challenges: public figures often employ misleading language, or have their language twisted to mean something different to what they intended. It’s already difficult for different political groups to communicate effectively; a cold shoulder isn’t going to help.

Thinking particularly about higher education, there is little benefit to denying Willetts a platform. His is not a subversive, poisonous ideology, but one with which millions of people already agree. In a liberal democracy with two dominant parties we will not achieve progress by sticking our fingers in our ears and shouting; we should be listening to the opinion of our opponent and doing our best to disprove their argument. To argue that the citizens of an academic community should not have access to all the arguments that they need to make up their mind on, say, tuition fees, is to admit that the force of your argument is insufficient to trump that of your opponent.

For the University of Oxford to shut itself off from the Minister of State for Universities and Science would be politically misguided. You can bet that senior members of the University and Heads of House took the opportunity to press Willetts after the debate. However – and in another ironic twist – no one took the opportunity to challenge Willetts on his policies in the chapel at St. Peter’s.

I don’t agree with Willetts, and I applaud the students who protested outside St Peter’s College. That said, for our universities to serve their purpose, they need to carefully cultivate a liberal attitude to freedom of speech. Many of our nation’s most prominent reformers came out of Oxford, precisely because they were encouraged to challenge dominant political norms. If we can celebrate them, we have to at least tolerate those we don’t agree with.

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