As Marion Maréchal-Le Pen speaks at the Oxford Union, the latest far-right figure to be invited, Dana Mills argues that it is an abuse of free speech and minorities pay the price
In the academic year 2018-2019 the Oxford Union seems to have prioritised inviting speakers from the far right, leaning towards if not already in fascism, as public speakers in their events. Alice Weidel from the German Alternative For Deutchland, Steve Bannon, the infamous architect of the Muslim ban, and now Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the niece of presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and politician in the French fascist National Front party, are headlining the Union’s term card.
The Union is now duplicating the ‘free speech’ argument so prevalent on American campuses which claims that all opinions are valid and should be debated, and truth and virtue shall triumph. However, in the USA there was a very quick comeback from abuse of this argument, with a vivid campus antifascist network which, although its members are quite often targeted for speaking up, bravely keeps going ahead. And now it seems this trend of abusing the idea of free speech by creating forums for escalation of racism has arrived in the UK too.
At a time when racial tensions are escalating the normalisation of white supremacy is worrying. With those politics comes its unwelcome and inextricable cousins: Islamophobia, antisemitism, sexism and homophobia. Being a white upper-middle class heterosexual man is becoming increasingly easier. Becoming anything else is becoming increasingly harder. Which is where the point of the free speech argument is so obviously abused and flawed. One cannot assume free speech when people come from different positions to the table, especially when one of those positions is predicated on inciting hatred against ethnic and religious minorities. Free speech only occurs among equals.
The Oxford Union is institutionally racist, classist and exclusionary. It is not a forum in which all can exchange debates and ideas. So even within this frame of thinking about free speech (which is in itself problematic in this time of heightened racism) the argument does not hold.
Local MP Anneliese Dodds has spoken out publicly against the misuse of funds by way of police protection to protect all those speakers. Whereas the Union claims it has the right to invite whoever they wish to speak, the police are demanded to provide protection for speakers opposite protestors to ensure the talks can go ahead. The anti-Bannon protest saw thousands of anti-fascists requiring the police to bring in more than 50 extra women and men to ensure he can enter the union. Many of these police women and men were on their second shift. Public taxes are spent to ensure far-right speakers get to address small crowds paying hundreds of pounds a year is a good place to reconsider who pays for ‘free’ speech.
Moreover, while a few privileged students are playing with political agendas in order to gain media attention and further possible political careers (the prominence of Oxbridge has been blamed more than once for the inadequacy of the British political ruling class, and perhaps in this volatile time it is time to observe that argument more closely), others are paying a hefty price. Oxford is first a city, then a university city, then a university, and then the Oxford Union, a small organisation riding off its prestige disproportionally. When the Union invites far-right speakers, the local Oxford community notices the escalation of hatred and violence. During the anti-Bannon protest, Nazi salutes were performed. Two days after Bannon was invited to speak swastikas appeared in a local club. A week later a pregnant Muslim woman was attacked in broad daylight. The escalation of racism through the Union’s activity changes the local residents’ everyday life.
And yet the people of Oxford are proving that they say no to racism and hatred. A local initiative, Oxford Unites as an Anti Racist City, led by Shaista Aziz and Jabu Nala-Hartley, is leading this resistance and proving that Oxford is saying no to racists, fascists and white supremacists. Oxford says no to sexism, racism, Islamophobia and homophobia. On the weekend of Martin Luther King day, the people of Oxford are revisiting his wonderful statement:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Dana Mills is a writer and an activist. She is working on the historiographies of radical Jewish women. She is currently writing a biography and critical study of Rosa Luxemeburg.