On Freedom Of Speech

Freedom of speech is one of the single most important values that I believe the Liberal Democrats stand for. It’s value is unparalleled. Hearing opinions from all corners of the debate is something we cannot have a discussion about liberty without. Moreover, we’re the only party committed to enshrining this fundamental right in national law. While the debate is rightly largely focused on the unacceptable encroachment pressed on us by decades of well meaning but hopelessly ineffective anti-terrorism laws, which is a matter for another blog, it’s well worth noting that there seems to be an emerging trend among student unions to not give certain political opinions a fair voice.

Take, for example, this play by our friends in red at Cambridge. Because they personally disagree with the values Le Pen represents, they’re trying to put pressure on the national party to make a statement saying “down with this sort of thing.” To this, my reply can only be “careful now.” While I entirely agree that a neo-fascist only holds reprehensible, xenophobic and illiberal opinions, I cannot agree that censoring these from the debate is an effective way to counteract them. It’s nothing more than sticking your fingers in your ears, screaming and acting like a toddler about the challenge in front of you. A reactionary response with no substantive policy behind it, and makes no attempt to diffuse what is the third largest political party in France, scoring 18% of the vote in 2012 for President.

Indeed, take this statement from the article above. “Racism and fascism has no place in Cambridge.” The irony of this is nothing short of breathtaking. Defining fascism brings us to “intolerant or authoritarian views or practice.” Intolerance of intolerance is contradictory. It’s a double negative. It cancels itself out, and leaves you absolutely nowhere. It is completely useless in terms of countering your opponent, because the failure to engage with them allows their opinions to go unchallenged and grow. Furthermore, it brings credence to their own policies of not engaging with a particular division of people, whichever that may be, because they personally oppose them. In other words, you’re effectively countering them with their own tactics.

For a more prolific example, we only have to look at the Leeds Student, which published an interview with left wing punchbag Nick Griffin. I won’t waste time dissecting his opinions and comments in this article, nor will I say I can agree with any of them at all. This article defends his right to have those opinions – whether they’re factual and based on empirical evidence following research, or picked up off a leaflet he was given by a member of the DUP at a party once. After all, we can write articles about the importance of liberation and equality – so why do we deny him the same opportunity to make his case? If we give him the opportunity, he’s clearly not very good at it anyway, as his appearance on Question Time will prove until the end of time (or when an enthusiastic copyright enforcement company takes it down on dubious legal grounds). So what are we worried about?

According to the NUS, we risk “giving legitimacy to [the BNP].” That they “stand for the elimination of the democracy and all freedoms that [we] claim to support.” Here’s something which they might find uncomfortable reading. The BNP are already a legitimate political party. That they have two seats as MEPs with 6.2% of the poll proves it. People vote for them. People buy into it. People support their ideals. A failure to give them a platform for discussion is breathtakingly dangerous. Their voters clearly sympathise with the propaganda they issue, and the way to challenge that is not by ignoring it – we need to explain to their sympathisers not just that they are wrong, but why they are wrong.

The effectiveness of engaging with them cannot be understated. Look at what happened in 2010, when they struck out in the National Elections (despite 73 of their candidates achieving over 5% of their constituency polls). More recently, they failed to hold the majority of the seats which they gained in the 2008 council elections. For whatever myriad of reasons this may be, I have no doubt in my mind that it’s because of the additional scrutiny legitimacy has brought to them – showing them in the daylight for the first time, instead of lurking as some sort of political underclass in the darkness. Their politics simply does not hold up, but it needs to be shown as such in the first place.

A problem does not go away if you ignore it. Zero Tolerance, as they call it, is misguided. How can we possibly rise above bigotry if we don’t show why it’s unilaterally wrong to do so? A failure to communicate why equality and freedom are such important issues, responding only with “it’s common sense that these things are bad”, means we risk losing them through complacency. The “common sense” argument would surely have been touted in the days of disenfranchised people based on class, because they’re ‘too stupid’ to understand politics. Or “it’s common sense” that we shouldn’t allow homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals, because the Bible says so. “Common sense”, if it is anything at all, is just a reflection of the speaker’s conception of the broadly held views in society.

Failure to explain the vital importance of opposing groups like the BNP, and challenge them on a National level, will only perpetuate and increase the divide that their voters clearly see between “them” and “us”. Barriers have never been broken down by not trying to solve the causes of the problem. So indeed, I welcome opinions I don’t agree with. I dare them to confront me, so I can show why I don’t agree with them. The dominance of liberal ideas should not be used as an excuse for ignoring illiberal ones.

Matthew Dougherty
UB Liberal Democrats Vice-Chair
Twitter: @mduob


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