Griffin and Irving should not have been invited

November 26, 2007

Peter Tatchell and Norman Geras make it easy: arguing that Griffin and Irving should not have been invited to the Oxford Union debate isn’t about denying free speech, because what is being proposed is simply that people with repugnant views should not be offered a platform. The idea being that one thing is silencing the expression of repugnant views, another refusing to promote such expression. Because the Oxford Union could have done the latter without thereby doing the former, the Oxford Union could have legitimately avoided inviting Griffin and Irving without in any way disrespecting their right to free speech.

This distinction appears to imply that we might have a duty not to promote the expression of repugnant views such as those of Griffin and Irving, where that duty is universal to every decent person, I take it. But if we all respect such a duty, as we obviously should, don’t we end up silencing Griffin and Irving, thereby disrespecting their right to free speech? I guess the answer will depend on what counts as promoting the expression of fascist views. Are the guys who police Irving’s neighborhood promoting his expressing of fascist views by protecting him? Are the employees of the supermarket where Griffin does his grocery shopping promoting his expression of fascist views by feeding him?

That would be absurd: the relevant difference being that refusing to offer them such services would violate other rights of theirs independent from free speech while not inviting them to the Oxford Union debate wouldn’t. So what we want to say is that doing anything that materially enables Griffin and Irving to express their views, and that we are not required to do in order to respect any other right of theirs (or, obviously, of others), counts as promoting the expression of their fascist views, and is thereby unjustified.

There are cases that this distinction might leave out, such as, for example, this post. It could be argued that this post materially promotes Irving’s and Griffin’s expression of their views, by increasing the number of mentions of their names on the Internet, for example, or by, say, encouraging readers of this post to look up who Griffin is, and make themselves aware of his views. I did not have to write this post to respect Griffin or anyone else’s right; so have I violated my duty not to promote their expression of fascist views?

And it won’t help to just stipulate that if you materially promote the expression of fascist views without being aware of doing so, then you have not forgone your duty. Because I for one was aware of such possibility in writing this post. So we might have to say that the reason why this post does not forgo my duty is that in writing it I had good reason to believe that I was weakening Griffin’s and Irving’s case for their views (because, say, I strenghten the case against them). But this is exactly the kind of thing that the organizers of the Oxford Union debate will say, so that the only reply left is that they are mistaken in thinking that they have good reason to believe that offering Griffin and Irving microphones will weaken their case for fascism.

But this isn’t too bad a conclusion, because it enables us to argue that, given that there was no free speech violation in not inviting them, Griffin and Irving should not have been invited, because inviting them potentially increases their following (where ‘potentially’ means that inviting them contributes to increasing their following more than it does to decreasing it).

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