Student Societies and the Problem With Controversial Invitations

Controversy is a strange thing. Simply knowing about the matter is enough to cause a reaction. Nothing needs to have occurred yet to cause offense. The implications and the possibilities can be enough.

Matters such as these that move into the wider public arena quickly draw attention. When people find out that something or someone controversial has been given a platform, opinions quickly divide. A mere invitation will cause offense, creating friction from the outset.

For student societies, that makes inviting any controversial public figure a tough job.

hot topic (photo by Enokson)

photo by Enokson – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Oxford Union, a debating society, recently came under fire for what looked like differing views in how to handle controversial invitations. Reactions surrounding invitations to Julian Assange and Nick Griffin appeared different. Assange was granted a platform, while Griffin was dismissed as not having even been properly invited. Independent student newspaper, Cherwell, quoted an Oxford Union spokesperson: “The Oxford Union does not wish to be associated with the BNP in any way whatsoever. We strongly disagree with their views.”

Assange, however, went on to speak in late January 2013. Former president of the Oxford Union, Izzy Westbury, explained to the Guardian why invitations like these are made:

“Inviting someone controversial – be it in a political sense, a religious one or, in the case of Assange, a legal one – is the best way of showing them for what they really are. When Assange is video-linked to the union, I would expect and encourage questions that challenge both his views and his actions. We should put him in an uncomfortable position – that is the condition of the invite.”

Writing for Cherwell, Alexander Rankine pointed out that such a vocal disapproval of one person and not another is contradictory:

“A Union invitation does not condone. Guests can be cross-examined. The Union is neutral. The idea of the Union adopting a political position or pursuing an agenda goes brazenly against this principle. Now it seems that the Union’s invitations are motivated by political opinions and specific agendas after all. And if that is really the case, then the Assange invitation starts to look more like a vote of support. The Union stops being neutral.”

An invitation is not an entirely neutral move unless you invite the entire population of the world on exactly the same grounds. Invitations arise due to some form of interest or controversy or debate or fame. The matter is complex, so cannot be neutral even if the intention was innocent.

What if a society was more explicit in explaining the reasoning behind an invitation as non-politically as it could? If that happened, the situation is still political, because reasons can be argued and people can disagree with the reasoning given.

Rankine handily wraps up the difficulty and the answer in a single sentence: “I always thought that the Union was meant to be a neutral debating platform.”

That term, “Neutral debating platform“. Can a debating platform ever be entirely neutral?

Debating occurs due to political matters. That’s the point of a debate. Be it a mild discussion, or an emotionally dividing battle, opinions are not all the same.

When Marine Le Pen, president of French political party Front National, spoke at the Cambridge Union, around 200 protesters gathered in opposition. One protester told The Cambridge Student:

“I don’t object to her speaking, but I think the important thing is we make it quite clear there’s opposition. The fact that you can get up and ask her a few questions afterwards is not really enough.”

The term ‘neutral debating platform’ comes into question based not only on the handing out of invitations, but also on the format of the debate.

Yet an invitation is placed in order to bring forth further debate, rather than endorse or congratulate (or, indeed, disagree or disparage) the parties involved. An opportunity for questions may not be seen as enough.

With so much to contend with, inviting a controversial figure cannot be completely neutral. Their views and actions are a necessary part of the package. It’s a big part of why their presence was requested in the first place. Those underlying reasons cannot be temporarily removed for logistical purposes.

Debating societies wouldn’t exist without some sort of controversy. That’s why an attempt to be neutral looks anything but to some. Politics may be intended only once everyone is gathered in the debating hall. However, some decisions are already political long before many realise they are political at all.

How would you handle controversial figures and controversial invitations?

2 comments

  1. Inviting controversial figures is never easy. I remember one university where the Theological Society had invited Enoch Powell to talk about Scriptural Exegesis. Invites were strictly society only and all was under wraps because they feared negative demonstrations/protests over his politics, which of course had nothing to do with the debate.

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