Our statement on Marine Le Pen’s talk at the Cambridge Union Society.
The Cambridge Union Society is once again causing controversy by inviting the French far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, to speak in its hallowed debating chamber. This invitation is opposed by numerous student organizations in Cambridge on a ‘No-Platform’ basis, due to her leading ‘a fascist organization’. Whether her views are fascist or not is irrelevant. Her right to free speech, and the right of others to hear her speak, should not be infringed.
The right to free speech is the cornerstone of a free society. The ‘No Platform’ supporters claim that ‘No Platform is about defending freedom of speech’, as ‘Fascists use freedom of speech to spread their message of hate, but destroyed all freedom and democracy when they gained power.’ This argument is a clever case of doublethink, much like Irwin’s paradoxical statement in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys – ‘The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom’.
How does one protect a universal right to free speech by taking it away from a select few? Mme Le Pen’s views are deemed distasteful, even abhorrent, by a great many, almost certainly an overwhelming majority of people in Cambridge and this country, but since when was an individual’s right to free speech dependent on the will of the majority? An important part of a liberal society is the appreciation of a variety of different viewpoints, many of which will not be in accordance with your own.
If the Union is ‘promoting’ Mme Le Pen’s ideas by inviting her to speak, surely it is also ‘promoting’ the ideas of its other speakers, which many may find themselves opposed to. I am thinking here of members of mainstream political parties, of Communists, of the religious, and of pretty much every speaker the Union could possibly invite.
If it is a question of balance, surely a better way to combat this ‘promotion’ of one idea over another would be to invite another speaker, perhaps an avowed anti-fascist, to speak. This would be more in keeping with the Union’s purpose, in promoting debate. Debate and discussion is meaningless if it is only with those with which you already agree.
The proponents of ‘No Platform’ seek to fight what they deem abhorrent views by denying those views an outlet. By closing their eyes and ears they hope the problem will go away. Yet by refusing to engage with those they oppose, they do not tackle the problem of racism and fascism head on. They push it underground, where its effects are even more insidious. A self-confident liberal political philosophy is more than capable of taking on what is at its core a disjointed, contradictory and ill thought out doctrine. A better response would be to make the positive case for liberal democracy, and have a real debate which the proponents of fascism would certainly lose.
In response to the accusations that ‘No Platform’ is stifling free speech, they may argue that all they are doing is preventing one person from joining a rather small group who have a somewhat elevated level of speech. They are free of course to speak elsewhere. What ‘No Platform’ is then doing is not attempting to prevent Mme Le Pen from speaking, but to prevent the Cambridge Union Society from listening. This attacks a core idea even deeper than the freedom of expression, the freedom of thought. Such an argument suggests that if we listen, we will be drawn in by the sweet words and charisma of Mme Le Pen and all become fascists. Such an idea is of course ludicrous; an important aspect of a free society is the freedom of all people to hear all arguments and come to their own conclusions, whether others like it or not.
One does not fight fascism with fascism. One protects free speech with free speech. Mme Le Pen’s invitation to the Union presents an opportunity for all students in Cambridge to tackle her head on, to challenge her views and the views of her supporters. To eschew this opportunity and instead challenge her right to free speech is not only wasteful but detrimental to the fight for freedom and liberty in which many of the supporters of ‘No Platform’ are keenly engaged.
Those who did not go to the talk can watch Marine Le Pen’s speech here:
And here is a round-up of interesting articles from the Cambridge “blogosphere” (or lack of) about Marine Le Pen and “No Platform” policies.
Conrad Landin asks why has Marine Le Pen been invited to Cambridge? – “Chanting ‘free speech’ isn’t enough: the debating union has to answer criticisms of its dodgy celebrity invitations”.
This House Would Invite Marine Le Pen – Ben Kentish, President of the Cambridge Union Society, explains why Marine Le Pen was invited to speak at the Union.
Why Le Pen is an absent threat – Chris McKeon argues that the controversy surrounding Marine Le Pen’s recent appearance at the Union overestimates Cambridge’s influence, and underestimates its students’ common sense.
Why We Might Want to Invite Marine Le Pen to Cambridge – Jinho Clement, Chair of iCUSU, responds to Conrad Landin’s Guardian article from the perspective of an international student.