This House believes violent video games should be banned

by Aki Schilz

As part of Free the Word, we will be going on visits to various organisations that deal with issues to do with freedom of expression and censorship. On Monday, I went to the Oxford Union. Here’s what happened…



So, on Monday myself and a group of young writers and illustrators from Free the Word and Comix India (a parallel project also being run by Eastside) journeyed on the Oxford Tube to Oxford to visit the world-famous debating chambers. Unfortunately, we got there to be told the debate had been cancelled last-minute due to keynote speakers cancelling.

PANIC!

Thankfully, after a lot of running around by various Union members, a young man stepped forward to offer an alternative to the debate, to ensure we hadn’t wasted our time coming all the way.

Ronald Collinson,  a member of the Committee, was kind enough to organise an impromptu tour of the building and a show debate on a topic similar to that scheduled – we are especially grateful to him and to the four speakers who gave up their time in order to accommodate us. Gavin Illsley, Corey Dixon, Ollie Linch and two others whose names I unfortunately did not note down were particularly helpful.

On the tour we were given access to all rooms but the library, which was locked for the evening. We were treated to a history of the Union. In particular, I was interested to see a wall just beyond the foyer where members could post their manifestoes and could also post ‘Dear President’ letters. It was really interesting to consider this in the light of what Ronald told us, which was that the Union is in effect an arena within which antithetical elements concerning freedom of speech and its limitations are suspended. On the one hand, members standing for committee are bound by strict rules which forbid them to campaign, picket or attempt to garner votes except on the strength of their manifesto, which itself is subject to strict regulations to ensure it contains no false or defamatory information. If candidates are found to flout the rules, they are put to tribunal; a panel is called in from London, including a lawyer, and talks are held throughout the night in a room at the Union, with the windows newspapered shut and the doors locked, until the matter has been resolved. The sanctions for breaching any of the rules in the election process are severe and can damage a member’s reputation at the Union and within the University evermore.

On the other hand, in the debating chamber itself, the only rule is that one cannot be defamatory (speakers in the chamber do not enjoy the same parliamentary and absolute privileges as those in the Houses of Parliament). Outside of that, the chamber is a forum for free speech, and as such is a space in which its limits are constantly tested and exploited. The principle? The best ideas come out in the market place, and controversial or radical ideas are best broached, and best defeated, in the public arena. This is very much in keeping with Mill’s “marketplace of ideas”. The truth, we were told, will be found. I’m not sure this is true, since the idea of truth is infinitely complex and ultimately subjective, however I do believe that in searching for the truth we can have the most fruitful debates and that this way we develop our minds, expanding our intelligence and our perception of the truth(s) we find around us.

The problem, of course, as Corey explained to us, is that the moment we hold one person or one body (ie a government, a society) as arbiter of truth, we allow the very narrative of our lives to be controlled and dictated by that one perceived truth. Radicality is only ever seen in terms of this ‘grand narrative’. There can be no Other without an Absolute. What is Other is seen as subversive, as different, and suddenly truth and untruth become very murky indeed.

On the one hand, here in the UK we are great defenders of free speech and freedom of expression. On the other hand, we are also very quick to gang together to shout loudly against the radical Other. In some cases, this is done for the benefit of society, the defense of the marginalised, providing a voice for those who cannot themselves rally against suppressive forces. In other instances, the matter becomes a sinister beast that society grapples with uneasily.

One example that one of the speakers gave that really stuck in my mind was that of the Holocaust. As a German, this is a topic I am particularly sensitive to, and even I feel a sense of the shame and burden of what was a horrific period of history. We were asked, as a group, to consider the case of a Holocaust denier.  A man declares the Holocaust never happened, and we jump to condemn him and call for his incendiary remarks to be suppressed. His claim is insulting and damaging. That is truth and there is no denying it. It is absolute. A second man announces that he has been conducting research for years, and has concluded that actually, the number of Jews who tragically lost their lives is nearer 4 million than 6 million. Suddenly, our reaction is suspended. We hesitate to roundly condemn this man, because suddenly, we are not quite sure how to react.

At what point do we draw the line?


One point that was made was that ultimately, unlimited free speech is untenable. To an extent, not to ban or censor anything goes against the principles at the heart of ideas of free speech. But what do we ban and how do we justify banning it? One of our speakers suggested that if the overall effect of a comment or an action can be shown to be damaging, its banning may be justified. Equally, if it can be shown to be contributing absolutely nothing of value to society, it may be dismissed. Of course, once again we enter into dangerous etymological and semiotic territory. What denotes whether something is of value? How do we judge what is ‘damaging’? Social and historical context, morality, philosophy, government, all of these and more are woven into a fabric that becomes a canvas onto which such questions are pinned and in light of which they transform, evolve, grow.

Without debate, without discussion, there is no democracy. There must be dialogue, there must be speech, there must be communication. To sum up our workshop, Corey insisted that upholding the values of free speech and resisting monopoly on thought is essential in securing future freedoms and creating choice and possibility. It is in honour of this aim that we must continue to explore the principle of free speech, and investigate its limits.

***

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to go to the Oxford Union and am hugely impressed with the mock debate that was whipped up for us so last-minute. The young artists and writers who came along all really enjoyed themselves. My highlight had to be coming out into the cool night air, remarking the silence and asking one of the artists if he had enjoyed himself.  His response: “I’m just thinking… It made me think”

To make people think, to encourage young minds to be inquisitive, is so important and I am so pleased that it all went so well.

For more information on the Oxford Union, visit http://www.oxford-union.org/home


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