This weekend in London was an event called “Battle of Ideas.” Basically, it was a bunch of discussion forums and debates about politics, art, culture, the family, ethics, etc, etc. The participants were journalists and academics mainly. I went to three: (1) Radicalism then and now: the legacy of 1968, (2) What does it mean to be American?, and (3) Free speech on campus: should we ditch no platform? The first two were quite interesting, and even got a bit intense when the two Americans on the 5-person panel in the second forum got into a big argument. There were some tense moments. But I was VERY engaged with the third, which was an actual one-versus-one debate. It was about “no platform” in the NUS (the national students’ union), which says that no racist or fascist organization can participate in an NUS debate, be invited to speak, or run for election. Student 1 first argued that we should ditch this, and at first, I was on his side. I thought, free speech is important! By debating with them, we are not legitimizing them, but proving them wrong. But then Student 2 spoke and I was beginning to sway. And then the audience started asking questions and they were ALL against Student 2, against no platform. They were mainly talking about the BNP (British National Party), which is pretty racist and is anti-immigration. So I felt bad for the poor guy and put my hand up, and was actually called upon to speak! So I basically said, “I’m Canadian (everyone who had spoken was British), so I don’t know much about the BNP. But in Canada we have restrictions on hate speech and I think that that is important. So my question is to [Student 1]: If it is true that racial violence increases after the BNP speak in that area (as was argued), do you think that the ideal of free speech trumps the safety of the local population?”

The moderator seemed to like my question. And then Student 1 basically said yes, free speech does trump all. He said that if it was proven that violence increased after an NUS event with a BNP speaker, or another organization, he would continue to hold these debates to continue to fight them. I just thought he was very, very wrong.

Y’see, it got me thinking about my Political Reconciliation class. When I first started taking this class, I really disliked the idea of amnesty. There just seemed like there was something inherently wrong with letting the perpetrators of genocide, ethnic cleansing, torture, murder, and other gross human rights violations go free. It’s like that old cynical saying: “If you kill one person, you go to prison for life. If you kill 1,000, you get amnesty.” But then, there are situations where amnesty and the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions result in more peace (less killing and violence) than would criminal prosecutions. So, what is really important? Does an ideal of “justice” trump peace and less death? For me, I think ideals, even ones I hold very strongly, crumble in the face of death. If sacrificing an ideal ensures less loss of life, well then, I think we should stick with that. But it is still very complicated, because who can say for certain which strategy will result in less death (especially in the long run)?
Now let’s see what happens with “no platform”…

About kbardswich

Writer. Photographer. Activist. Lesbian. Feminist. Traveller. Voracious learner. Part-time shit-disturber.

Posted on November 3, 2008, in London Life 2008-9. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I tend to be with you on this. Not that I don’t think that there are ideals worth dying for; I wouldn’t be here– none of us would be– if there hadn’t been idealists who had laid down their lives for a greater good. But there’s a major difference between choosing, in a moment of critical importance, such as a war, whether or not to fight, and inciting others to disturb the peace. And as for the issues of amnesty, and the Truth and Reconciliation– it’s so tricky! The thought of those Nazis who were getting away with hiding out in Argentina makes my blood boil, but the thing is that the execution of justice following the Holocaust, especially as it took place in Israel, played the same role as Truth and Reconciliation did in S. Africa. Frankly, I think that, much as we, as academics, would love to be able to package it up into a neat universal principle, the fact is that each case is so peculiar to itself, particularly in cases of genocide and human rights, that we’ll be lucky if we manage to determine even a universal set of goals to achieve.Such insightful posts, my Kaitlin! Way to distract me from my essays… but at least you got my brain moving!!!♥ Deb

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