Voltaire’s Dictum

The Oxford Union did their best to hold a debate last night, despite some quite serious protests and a whole lot of disruption. The subject was free speech (or more accurately, the limits of free speech).

Now, you would think from the commotion that somehow the students of Oxford have come to a collective understanding of totalitarian government. It did seem that there were a great many people objecting to the idea of free speech last night. Now, I know that our glorious government have made great inroads in persuading the public that the curtailing of our ancient rights and freedoms is necessary, but I was somewhat surprised that the Oxford University Student Union (and others) were so eager to see this precious freedom curtailed.

Of course, the issue was considered so divisive not in and of itself, but because of those chosen to speak at the debates. Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, and Dr David Irving, famous holocaust denier, hold views that are quite removed from mainstream consensus. Some (including myself, I have to say) find the their views somewhat abhorrent, so perhaps it is understandable that they are controversial characters, but the fact that their ideas are repellent to us does not mean that they do not have the right to voice them.

Voltaire’s famous dictum is thus:

I disapprove of your views, but would fight to the death for your right to express them.

Freedom of speech is exactly that: a freedom to say whatever you like. We have in existence a finely balanced framework of laws that prevent the abuse of that freedom (such a libel law, for instance). The principle is that, provided that what is expressed is opinion (and not defamation of character or incitement to riot etc) then there is no authority that may dictate the words you may utter or the opinions you may hold. That is a freedom that I, like Voltaire, will fight for.

Now, I believe that Luke Tryl, the President of the Oxford Union has, in inviting these particular speakers, courted controversy in a rather unhelpful manner. The invitations seem more to do with the publicity that they would generate than any fundamental political or philosophical worth that Griffin’s or Irving’s opinions would hold. It is not a decision that I would have made, or one that I condone, but the reaction to it horrifies me.

We do not have a blasphemy law in this country, because we hold to the belief in freedom of speech. Yet it seems that there are many in this country who desire a law decreeing ‘blasphemy against the liberal consensus’. The protests around the Oxford Union were because the opinions of Irving and Griffin were considered to be too illiberal to be given hearing. Which is quite frankly ridiculous.

We cannot protest against fascist opinions by attempting to instil fascist dictates. However much we disagree with the BNP or Irving’s frankly bonkers theories, they still have a right to voice them. If we don’t want to hear them, don’t listen. Better yet, engage them and defeat them in debate, which has always been the most liberal of traditions.

I hold firm to beliefs (in the existence of God and the truth of the bible) that are offensive to many atheists and secularists. Am I to be shut up as well? Are those that disagree that the present security situation requires the curtailing of civil liberties to disallowed from voicing their objections? Are those that fervently hold that the war in Iraq (and the threatened action against Iran) are part of a war on Islam to be denied the platform to voice their concerns?

In this world there are many opinions that are non-secular and illiberal. There are many voices that proclaim things that we see as ridiculous or worse; racist, hateful, insidious. We may quite rightly object and disagree to such opinions and do so with passion. But we cannot take away their right to speak, because if we start down that road at what point do we stop?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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