Thursday, November 08, 2007

Free speech and the fascists

I am sorry to hear that my new friend Dr Evan Harris is determined to spoil our friendship by speaking at the Oxford Union alongside Nick Griffin and David Irving, in support of the motion, 'This house believes that even extremists have a right to freedom of expression within the law'.

Now I believe that extremists have a right to freedom of expression within the law. Messrs Irving and Griffin, along with many other extremists of all shapes and sizes, have websites, for example, which contain masses of information about their views and which anyone with an internet connection and rudimentary google skills can access. If they were to bring their soapbox and stand in the main street of any town, they could talk to shoppers and passers by to their hearts' content. The BNP, in the few parts of the country where it can find enough supporters, can produce leaflets and shove them through people's doors.

Furthermore, I believe that it is right to challenge extremists and show their ideas to be false, particularly when it comes to Holocaust deniers and fascists. Again, there are some excellent places in which this kind of debate can take place. The courtroom, for example, has proven a very effective forum for debunking Irving's books and proving him to be a Holocaust denier, and for convicting many of Nick Griffin's strongest supporters as are violent thugs who have broken a range of different laws. Running successful election campaigns against the BNP whenever they stand for election is another important duty.

However, if I were to design a format which would offer the fewest possible opportunities for debating productively with extremists, I could hardly do better than a private members' club full of people who have an overinflated view of their own intellect, with only the most limited opportunity for cross examination, in a debate where Dr Evan Harris seeks to challenge the extremist views of Irving and Griffin by speaking on the same side as them in a debate about free speech.

It's a bad idea to invite fascists to speak at the Oxford Union because it increases the chance that fascist thugs will beat people up, because it gives them credibility and free publicity and because there is absolutely no way that they can lose from it, but even if you think that debating them is the way to expose their arguments and that your 'point of information' is going to make them see the error of their ways, surely you would hold a debate about any of the extreme things that they believe, rather than picking an issue on which they agree with the liberals?

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