We should not take this liberty for granted.
Freedom of speech debates have a tendency to infuriate me. People have a knack of logically deducing, from a series of overused, emotive clichés, that freedom of speech is intrinsically invaluable. When one mentions Martin Luther King or quotes Voltaire it is impossible not to be stirred; raw emotive force or eloquence act as a cop-out for having the debate in the only way it should be conducted; coldly and objectively.
Before I take a stand on the metaphorical soap box, it’s important to clarify exactly what I mean when I use the term ‘freedom of speech’. It’s a common misconception that it stands for the right to say anything you want, to whoever you want, whenever you want. Swearing at someone in the street because you dislike their attire or the way that they look, for example, is not you exercising your right to freedom of expression, it’s assault. Shouting racist abuse at a passer by is not someones right, it is impinging upon anothers personal freedodom and is, like the last example, assault. The difficult question is where exactly we draw the line.
Another dilemma is provided by our friends from the school of utilitarianism. Should freedom of speech only be accepted when it results in an overall benefit for society? Perhaps a trickier question is whether or not freedom of speech is always entirely beneficial for all those concerned, whatever the situation might be at the actual point of speech.
To apply this to the Oxford Union, I wholeheartedly support the decision of the Union to invite their two controversial speakers. Nick Griffin, Chairman of the BNP, has the right to take a stand and let his political views be known to the world. I would like to think that I have the nous to consider his argument objectively and without bias before coming to my own personal conclusions. The only way to truly re-affirm one’s own beliefs is by allowing others to attack them. I am a self-confessed lefty, and a devoted Guardian reader, but I nonetheless find that by far the most interesting conversations that I have are with those on the polar opposite side of the political spectrum.
There is also an inherent danger with the Government introducing legislation to try and silence these people. “Incitement to racial hatred” is just a weak cover for trying to shut up unsavoury views. A healthy society challenges these views head on and contests them in a public forum rather than letting them reach boiling point under the surface.
To stray briefly away from the point, I think that the rise of the BNP signifies a major underlying problem with our modern, centrist British politics. From Thatcher to the present day, British politics has been focused on middle-class England and the standard everyday voter. Politicians have, sadly, neglected the inner-city working class whites who as a result are dangerously disillusioned with the current political landscape that is not just unaccommodating, but doesn’t even seek to represent them at all.
The BNP has recognised this gap in the market and is all too happy to fill it. Immigration conveniently provides the explanation as to why the disillusioned, white working class are trapped in a low-income cycle. This is a failure of British politics; the BNP may be opportunist racists but the problem was there in the first place and it is no wonder they have sought to profit from it. It is now up to the government and society as a whole to tackle the problem at its core. Silencing the movement will be detrimental and merely serve to lay even greater foundations for their cause, making it harder to find a solution when facing the issue finally becomes inevitable and entirely unavoidable.
All of this, however, is just a fragment of the picture as a whole. I didn’t write this to prove conclusively the intrinsic value of free speech. What I want is to re-start the debate. We should take nothing for granted – everything is up for discussion. Challenge the beliefs that you have, up until this point, accepted unquestioningly. Cut through the rhetoric and hyperbole and argue every minor detail to the death; the survival of our society depends on it. I believe freedom of speech is essential for society; please, prove me wrong.