Today students in Dublin will protest against Nigel Farage's university speech – and yes we do want to shut down debate

To enter a debate is to implicitly concede the possibility that the other person might be correct; that you might leave the debate having changed your mind. I hope I would never allow myself to consider being persuaded of white supremacy

Brian O'Flynn
Friday 02 February 2018 13:04
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Freedom of speech has its limits, and we don't owe it to Nigel Farage
Freedom of speech has its limits, and we don't owe it to Nigel Farage

This week, students at Trinity College Dublin are surprised to find ourselves suddenly neck-deep in the no-platforming debate that has dominated UK media in recent years, owing to the fact that Nigel Farage has been invited to speak here on Friday.

No-platforming is the policy of denying public platforms to those who spread harmful sentiment against vulnerable groups. While Trinity has had minor skirmishes with no-platforming in recent years, we are now facing perhaps the most direct challenge to our values thus far. Will we allow British xenophobes like Farage and Katie Hopkins to outsource their speaking gigs to Ireland? Maybe they view us as a soft touch compared to the now seasoned no-platforming campaigners in the UK – if so, they’re in for a shock.

The Trinity student body is firmly left-wing, as evinced by our pro-choice, pro-LGBT, pro-refugee student union mandates. We are no strangers to fighting the far right – we recently won the marriage equality war against a vicious conservative contingent, and are currently locked in a ferocious battle for abortion rights.

Farage was originally to be awarded a Gold Medal by the College Historical Society, honouring his contribution to public discourse. The backlash against this was so great that this was downgraded to a speaking gig. An open letter of opposition to this has already been written up by Trinity students.

Many of us at Trinity believe Farage’s invitation should be rescinded, and we wholeheartedly endorse a no-platforming policy. No-platforming is not censorship, and to claim it is an attack on “freedom of speech” is an insult to that foundational principle of democracy.

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Freedom of speech is vital not because racists deserve microphones and cameras on them at all times, but because democracy needs to remain pluralist and open to scrutiny. This freedom is not compromised when privileged public figures like Farage miss out on medals. It’s compromised in countries like the Gambia, where former president Jammeh imprisoned, tortured and murdered his political opponents for 22 years. To appropriate the deadly seriousness of freedom of speech violations in order to whine about not being able to spout racist ideology to a large enough crowd is an insult to the Al-Jazeera journalists locked up in Egyptian prisons without trial.

Nobody has an automatic right to a university speaking engagement. These platforms are reserved for experts and outstanding contributors to various fields. As far as we are concerned, Farage’s only achievements have been to incite racial tensions, to fail to win successive elections, and to lie to the UK public about Brexit. The fact that he was on the cusp of receiving a medal for public discourse is risible.

In 2017, Trinity reported that 10 per cent of our students come from ethnic minority backgrounds, and so Farage’s rhetoric could have direct consequences for our peers. The flames of violence are fanned when anti-minority rhetoric is endorsed by respected institutions. When Donald Trump was elected, transphobic attacks shot up in the US – evidence that when hateful people feel like they’re not alone, they are more likely to act on that hate.

It is said that when we no-platform, we shut down debate. I certainly hope so. To enter a debate is to implicitly concede the possibility that the other person might be correct; that you might leave the debate having changed your mind. I hope I would never allow myself to consider being persuaded of Farage's objectionable views.

I am, despite my best intentions, intimately acquainted with Farage’s views. We live in a media-saturated world, and every student who is protesting against Farage’s appearance does so with full knowledge of what they oppose. We have debated it. We have all engaged with and wholeheartedly rejected Farage’s xenophobia. To say we are limiting our understanding of his ideas by not hearing the same bile spewed from a well-lit podium is frankly patronising.

Though Farage may view his appearance at our university as a conquered frontier, he should realise he will not export his diatribe to Irish shores so easily. As far as most Trinity students are concerned, Farage should have been no-platformed. He is not welcome here.

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