Marine Le Pen’s visit to the Union is not all about Free Speech

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I am a defender of free speech. Being able to express your opinion, especially dissenting views, is important for social progress. There was a time when democracy and equality were the radical ideas of the day and, had free speech not prevailed, we would be living in a very different world. Admittedly, some ideas are dodgy, idiosyncratic or downright wrong. But we must defend the expression of such ideas not only for consistency in principle, but also so we may engage these ideas in rational debate to highlight their weaknesses. Besides, who are we to make a judgment on which ideas are more right than others? Many ideas can be justified in one way or another, depending on personal value systems. Hence, I used to be a staunch defender of Marine Le Pen’s right to give a talk at the Oxford Union, even though I disagree with her anti-immigrant rhetoric.

However, after a long conversation with a friend, I finally changed my mind. My friend is a firm activist who was outside the Union protesting against the talk and preventing people from attending it. For her, this was not about free speech. It was about giving a talk at the Oxford Union, one of the most prestigious institutions in the world where countless of great people have once been invited to speak. This was different from speaking at a university lecture hall, or on a TV talk show, or at a political rally. This was no ordinary speaking opportunity. History and tradition has attached much symbolic meaning to giving a talk at the Union. When speaking there, you are more than just a speaker, but someone following in the footsteps of Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. It is a very public endorsement.

It is also a very misunderstood endorsement. I pointed out to my friend that Oxford University is an educational institution and that it does not, and should not play politics. The Union should be the guardian of free speech, and was not created as a place for prominent people to make their mark and secure stamps of approval. I also told her that if people had problems with Marine Le Pen’s views, this would be a very good opportunity to voice out their disagreements with her and demand she addresses them. If she fails to do so satisfactorily, it will reveal the how little substance her views actually has.  

And my friend again brought me back to reality. It does not matter what I think, nor what most Oxonians think. Most people outside Oxford do not know anything about the Union except that it is very prestigious. They do not understand why we invite who we do and what we are trying to achieve.  The press will not focus on questions students may have after Marine Le Pen’s speech, but rather the simple fact that she spoke at the Union.  Marine Le Pen had not been invited to a debate with opposition. In a debate, there would have been focus on the exchange of ideas. Instead, the limelight was clearly on Le Pen herself.  Perception is reality. Even though intentions were good, people may still perceive it as Marine Le Pen being endorsed by the Oxford Union.

It may seem cynical to suggest that endorsement from a well-known institution can affect people’s opinion, yet this bears some truth. People, unfortunately, sometimes rely on symbolic cues to make decisions. It is this symbolism that scares my friend as it inadvertently validates Marine Le Pen’s views in a climate of Islamophobia following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. This may lead to blind followers who may compromise the safety of minority groups and exacerbate racial tensions within society. It is out of love and a desire to protect the vulnerable that ultimately drove the protests, not because the protesters wanted to attack free speech per se.

Does Marine Le Pen deserve the endorsement that speaking at the Union accords her? Last week, the OxStu included an article arguing she should, because Marine Le Pen is now the “most popular politician in a major European power” and “a major figure in European politics”. I find this baffling – she is not yet a head of state and it is still too early to tell if the spike in her approval ratings is merely due to temporary backlash following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Even if she were elected as France’s president, does this position alone justify this prestigious endorsement? If so, the Union might as well invite Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Un and Bashar Al-Assad. The Union needs to be selective on who it endorses and being a “major popular politician” does not cut it as an adequate criterion for me. Speakers should share our values, including a commitment to liberty, equality, democracy, and justice.

I am still a defender of free speech, but I now appreciate that free speech must be taken in context. I still think Marine Le Pen should be invited to give talks and should be encouraged to participate in debate, but the Oxford Union is not the best place.

There were admittedly some protesters, particularly those who chanted “Death to fascists”, who clearly took the opportunity to attack free speech outright. This I cannot support. Though if anything, the presence of protests is, ironically, a healthy sign that freedom of expression is being upheld in the university. For protesters too have a right to express their discomfort with Le Pen. And if we condemn the protesters for ‘suppressing free speech’, are we any better than the protesters themselves?