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Monday, 26 November 2007

Parliament Afoul

The Oxford (Debating) Union is world famous. When I was president of Canda's national university debating society (CUSID) and Canada's top-ranked intervarsity debater (around 1997, 20 years ago) that place was the Valhalla of student parliamentary eloquence, its holiest shrine of rhetoric. Tonight, it has been stormed from without, as stormtroopers of a different sort wait within, to speak, perchance to growl. The basic question that England is fumbling with at this late hour is: should a democracy allow a man like AH to speak his mind? No point in lessening the point, that's the thing taken to its ad absurdist limit. Of course, the question then spins out of control - what was such a man like, etc. - thus, the dangers of free thought are, one might actually think, or say, the unthinkable. Language, as Judith Butler has observed, in works like Excitable Speech, has consequences. Saying things can hurt. Is a debating society a bear pit where such pain is to be tolerated, a surgery where boils are lanced, or a place to avoid such dangers of the spoken? I am, like all true debaters, of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, WWII was fought - and won - so that England would be free from the sort of government of the tongue that would control what people can say, openly. On the other, WWII was fought against men who had perverted precisely such a democracy, by using its own freedoms against it. Again, the dangers of speech are Hydra-headed, and devil-forked. Debaters know that what they say is a game - a playful romp with words - but a game that, like all symbols and allegories and tropes, carries weight and implication. They also know that, by taking sides in an argument, the truth reveals itself, not from what is said on either side, but, hovering somewhere above, and in-between, the galvanized opposites. Truth is dialectical, a thought that might have alarmed AH himself. Should men and women who think bad things about some people, and who we disagree with, be allowed in to the sacred space of robust verbal jousting? It depends on whether or not you think the resolution is about freedom to speak, or freedom from, some speaking. Or, put another way - doesn't the UK need to have a larger conversation about these beliefs, that grow and multiply in the margins? Perhaps - but where best to have this conversation, and are callow young students the best arbiters of a nation's soul? When I was a debater, it wasn't entirely sure the house of language so used had one. But then again, the absence of a soul is itself a free state.
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