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Freedom to hate? Why the Oxford Union’s obsession with controversial speakers must end

Only last term, in the article “Dear Oxford Union: what was the point of that?” Jack Twyman made a great point. For members of the LGBTQ+ community, how can it be right, in a space that they can reasonably expect to be inclusive, that individuals should be put to the stand, put on trial to defend their rights against transphobes and homophobes? Having a debate or speaker along such lines seems to have become a staple of the union term card. Quite why is up for debate, but it seems that in an era of sensationalism, the Union aims to bring in as much controversy each term under the guise of so-called freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech, of course, is something that the Oxford Union rightly champions. However, they often seem to breach the boundary between allowing freedom of speech and providing a platform to members of society who have rightly been banished from the mainstream due to their backwards views. Speech that actively harms or incites violence against minority groups has no place at our University. Should we really welcome those who make members of our community feel unsafe? I would like to think not. 

In a recent piece for Cherwell (Freedom of speech in 2023: Why the Oxford Union will never cancel controversial speaker) a Union member argued that we should go ‘into the spaces that oppose it [the trans community] the most’ in order to challenge them, a point in which I disagree with. The problem with this point is that it isn’t what the Union does. To the Union: this university should be a space for all its students and staff to feel welcome and safe, and you make it so that they are not. You are not going to them, you are inviting them to come to us, in many ways presenting to your members and the world that either you do not take their struggle seriously or outright don’t support them in the first place. Nothing forces students to turn up to the event. But should they not at least feel safe in a space that many have paid £300 to join?

Call me a hypocrite for making a criticism like this and yet still being a member. I think a lot of those who join the union do so with the promise of seeing incredible speakers, before quickly becoming disillusioned due to its toxic culture and grating politics. The addition of homophobic and transphobic speakers to such a mix doesn’t exactly make the union a more appealing space. 

The author also recognises that ‘defending one’s right to exist is awful’. Why on earth does the Union put people in such a position then? I would also challenge the idea that this is the only place these questions can be accessed. We live in a more connected society than ever, and the internet and social media mean that more than ever it is impossible to escape the worst aspects of society. Maybe in the past it was relevant for the Union to provide space, where the world was not so interconnected, and as such there really was no other place to engage with and challenge such views. However, nowadays it seems impossible to spend more than a few minutes on the internet without being met with a case of discrimination or bigotry.  

The University’s staff and student bodies have also clearly and resoundingly rejected the invitation of Stock to speak at the Union. At the time of writing, there is a growing number of colleges passing JCR motions condemning the decision. An Oxford Trans+ pride event has also been announced for the day of the talk by the LGBTQ+ society, in cooperation with other activists and other local organisations. This is the sort of action that we should be proud of. Defiance in the face of adversity. An unwillingness to back down when the rights of our friends and peers are called into question. And the sensible and mature way in which we are able to handle such situations, when those who have caused the controversy can do nothing but call us ‘Absolute babies’.

The thing is, there are so many inspirational public figures out there who I can guarantee would be of much greater interest to the student body, and who do not question our peers’ rights. In less than a year as a member, I have been lucky to see the union host speakers including Billie Jean King, Malala, and John Major. All of these speakers I feel I learned something from. What is there to learn from someone like Kathleen Stock? Do I really want to know what ‘one piece of advice’ she would give someone in my position? Not particularly. Do I think anything will be gained from a so-called ‘debate’ with her? No. 

So, what should we see from the Union? I don’t expect a lack of controversy; there are important issues in our time that are likely to spark heated debate. But it doesn’t have to be a case where we invite people who question the rights of our peers to be themselves and express who they are. The union should be a place of inspiration. A place where we find like-minded people. A place where, yes, those who oppose us can challenge us. But we shouldn’t accept that guests are going to challenge who our peers are as people. That crosses a line. 

Image Credit: Padraic//CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

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