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Alexander Rankine

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Julian Assange at the Oxford Union: The Right to Be an Unwanted Guest?

Posted: 19/01/2013 00:00

Another day, another bitter ideological dispute in the dreaming spires. That was all I thought at first of the rancour about Julian Assange's invitation to the Oxford Union. In a place as full of educated and politically engaged people as Oxford you become inured to this sort of thing.

It was only when as I was interviewing people for the Guardian piece, and afterwards when it went up online and got re-tweeted, discussed and picked up by other media that I realised that this was of more interest to the outside world than the other great ideological questions afoot in Oxford: gender inequality, capitalism and socialism, should the Cornmarket McDonalds be allowed 24 hour opening?

The comments underneath the piece pile scorn on whichever side the commenter disagrees with. A common suggestion is that Oxford standards must have fallen for these people to be saying such stupid things.

In fact, I don't believe either side in this latest flare-up is secretly a tribe of intellectually half-witted, addlepated simpletons. Both camps make perfectly intelligent and coherent cases. One stresses women's rights and disgust at rape culture, the other the liberal faith in freedom of speech. Neither is clearly in the right, and I myself am still open to new arguments and new viewpoints on the dispute. Here be nuance.

A point often missed is that the protesters are not trying to stop Assange from speaking freely. They just don't want him to speak at the Union. This might seem like semantics, but it is really quite an easy distinction to grasp. It is the difference between you not wanting your parents to invite embarrassing old Uncle Herbert to Christmas dinner, and you wanting Uncle Herbert to be legally required to wear a gag so that he can never annoy anyone. The protesters just don't fancy having Julian welcomed by their Union. He can do what he wants elsewhere, just not in our backyard, okay? In this sense, the argument boils down to a folksy, everyday problem. Would you want Julian Assange round for dinner?

I think it's fair enough to say that the Oxford Union has been a pretty rubbish host. Any host or hostess will tell you that inviting someone who will annoy a lot of the other people at the party (i.e. Union members, people in Oxford, your most honoured guest) is not going to help the atmosphere.

The honoured guest in this case is Tom Fingar, who will receive an award at the ceremony. Simone Webb, the primary instigator of the protests, reports that he emailed her saying that he wishes to: "disassociate myself from [Assange] and his actions." He is: "appalled by the theft and distribution of US government documents because it violates the law, personal obligations, and professional ethics."

The protesters also make a valid point in highlighting that Assange has been invited to appear at an awards ceremony, not for a debate where he can be fully cross-examined. This ceremony will inevitably be overshadowed by such a controversial presence, which is a shame when the focus is meant to be elsewhere. Furthermore, legal issues mean there are doubts about how much Assange will really be grilled over the allegations against him during the abbreviated Q&A session in any case.

For all of that, the protests leave a bad taste in the mouth. Much of it is tied-up with the pernicious 'no-platform' mentality of some student unions in this country, a policy that might have been started to protect vulnerable groups at political rallies from assault by extremist thugs, but is now all too lazily trotted out - censorship masquerading as common decency. Tom Rutland, president-elect of the University Student's Union, tweeted: "Someone facing a European arrest warrant in relation to being wanted for questioning regarding sexual offences should not be platformed." But since when was alleged criminality an objection to letting someone air their views? It doesn't make what they say any less valid.

I am no ideologue about free speech. There is certainly a case to be put for banning certain forms of hate speech and senseless incitement. I actually agree with the protesters in a way. I don't think that Assange should have been invited either. But now that he has, their fierce reactions and strident opposition go too far. We have a long tradition of letting people speak in this country - the iconoclastic, mad and frankly dodgy. Paradoxically, for the country that gave radicals like Marx sanctuary, we have avoided the sort of extremist politics that most of Europe has experienced in the last two centuries. Our tolerance has served and serves us well. It wasn't NUS motions and no-platform activism that precipitated the BNP's collapse in the polls, it was when Nick Griffin got a platform to air his views to millions on Question Time - and came out very poorly indeed. I don't like the Assange invitation either, but now he has been invited there is no point in deafening everyone who is trying to listen with complaints blaring out of the end of a megaphone.

 

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