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Why We Might Want to Invite Marine Le Pen to Cambridge

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An international student's response to Conrad Landin's question in The Guardian.

Up till two days ago, I did not know who Marine Le Pen was. I knew that France had a surprisingly popular ring-wing extremist in their presidential elections, but I was not familiar with her name. All this changed when the hullabaloo surrounding her invitation to the Cambridge Union Society got me looking into who this woman really is.

Do a Google search and you will have no difficulty discovering that this French politician is a controversial figure. Like many others, I personally find many of her views bizarre and even repulsive. For instance, her comparison of Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation was unnecessarily inflammatory. There are certainly better ways to address the issue of non-legal (but otherwise benign) street use than to invoke an emotionally loaded parallel like the German invasion of France in WWII.

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But if I am very honest, I do not really know much about her. I do know she's controversial, and I do know she has some bad views. I also know that some people even call her a neo-fascist. However, I have never heard her speak or explain her views. This is why I think Le Pen has good reason to be invited to Cambridge. 'Neo-fascism' seems to be growing in Europe, and the current economic crisis is certainly not helping to extinguish the flames of xenophobia. The best way to address this problem is to engage with it. A large part of engagement is about knowing where the other side is coming from. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of committing the very flaw which causes the extremists to make the conclusions we so vehemently oppose. Thus for the sake of people like me who don't know much about people like Le Pen, it makes a lot of sense to invite her to Cambridge. 'Free speech' ensures that societies like the Union can provide a forum for discussions like these.

True, the freedom of speech does not come without responsibilities. Hence Conrad argues that the Union risks legitimizing Le Pen by giving her a platform, and this impact will occur notwithstanding that the Union does not actively wish to promote neo-fascism.

But how much responsibility should we attribute to the Union? How many people (particularly Cambridge students, who will be most 'directly' affected by the talk) will actually be swayed towards neo-fascist thought through this invitation?

And if the Union were to start systematically excluding certain factions of thought from being welcome in their society (on the basis of refusing to 'legitimise' these ideas), where will we draw the line between responsibility and bias? It could on the other extreme be argued that the Union might abuse its prestige to only select speakers who help push forward their potentially oppressive worldviews.

Of course, the difficulty to draw a line does not remove the responsibility for drawing a line at all. But maybe the sufficiently responsible place to draw the line is to welcome anyone who is willing to speak openly and peacefully, and be questioned and challenged about the substance of their views? The Union may still be motivated by publicity stunts and perhaps even the personal ambitions of its officers. But by drawing the line here we can reduce the risk of them pushing for a wider ideological political agenda.

Perhaps I am insufficiently familiar with European politics to fully understand the gravity and threat of neo-fascism. But from what I do know, it does not seem to me that the valid concerns (as opposed to conclusions) of anti-immigration proponents and followers would best be addressed by a culture of platform-denial.

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