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Oxford, Bannon, and the humility of free speech

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There is no such thing as a neutral act of free speech. Everything worth hearing offends someone. If someone's views are 'controversial' (a term completely devoid of objectivity) it means that they should be heard if only for the reason that it allows regular listeners to refute them. The opposition to Steve Bannon speaking at the Oxford Union failed to realise this necessary point.

It is held that someone like Steve Bannon does not engage in logic the way civilized people do. Unfortunately for us, Steve Bannon does use logic. While he does reach conclusions that are absurd and potentially harmful, he cannot be treated as outside the bounds of rationality; politics is never that easy. Instead what needs to be considered are either his premises or his conclusions, which on the face of them are quite easy to rebut.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Steve Bannon. Image Credit: Elekes Andor

Underneath a lot of the commentary that promotes the banning of speakers is a conception of the public as infinitely plastic and receptive to bad ideas. Along with this is the implication that those wishing to prevent public speech are protectors of the public and possessors of that ever elusive standard of acceptable speech. Beware when compassion masks conceit. There is a humility in the position of those who doubt themselves enough to hear the thoughts of others and do not wish to deprive others of that right. 

It is worth entertaining the possibility that there is something worth hearing, and that those who are following may be doing so for an intelligible reason. If there is a rise of right-wing ideas then a true opponent of them needs to know why. 

Bannon's rhetoric at times focuses on many themes that would not seem alien to many people of the left. Distrust of an economic elite that has failed the people, focus on the labour class and its position in a changing global economy, anti-imperialist foreign policy: it is clear why some of his rhetoric reaches people, and it is important to realize that to combat its spreading.

Criticism has also been leveled against BBC for hosting Bannon on Newsnight, stating that it gives a platform and normalises his political position. This is an inversion of the cause and effect. His appearance on BBC will not turn him and his politics into a significant movement, he is on the BBC precisely because he and it are already significant and for that reason require scrutiny.

Steven Bannon is a historical figure, as the eminent journalist David Frum pointed out in his debate with him. If we are going to engage with the currents of our time, it in part must include someone who worked in the White House and subsequently has been working alongside the rise of various political parties and figures around the world. To understand Bannon's politics is to get a glimpse into why Trump, Salvini, Bolsonaro, Orban, and others are gaining political traction - and it is not because we are letting them speak on university campuses. 

It has also been commented that our civilized and intelligent paragons cannot handle the perfidious nature of this new right-wing, artless as they are. If our liberal paragons cannot effectively debate then do away with these paragons, but do not do away with debate. I can not have been the only person to shudder to hear Cathy Newman—a member of the journalistic profession in the country that produced Thomas Paine—unable to understand why freedom of speech required the right to offend.

Audiences, often underrated, are adept to hold speakers like Bannon to account. Listen to the audience groan, laugh and jeer when Steve Bannon performs his most weasel-like theatrics in the Toronto Munk debate, or the Oxford Union address.

My final appeal is to the energies of a seemingly mobilized and passionate left. Why is there is no serious opposition from university students to our Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt when his words more directly link to the deaths of innocent Yemenis?

Rather than looking at amorphous and loose associations between certain speakers and the rise of the far right, look for more direct causal links from words to violence. When Jeremy Hunt defends the right of the UK to ship arms to Saudi Arabia those words result in deaths. That is truly dangerous speech.

For more on this topic, read George Davies' article 'The Oxford Union shouldn't have invited Bannon, and the talk shouldn't go ahead'.

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