The U.K. is once again embroiled in a controversy over the limits of free speech. Oxford Union, a prestigious debating forum of the Oxford University, has invited David Irving and Nick Griffin to a debate. Mr. Irving is a historian, who had been jailed in Austria for denying the Holocaust. Mr. Griffin is leader of the far-right British National Party (BNP), and had been previously convicted of "incitement to racial hatred for publishing material that denied the Holocaust", under the British law.
With its invitations to these two representatives of the far right, Oxford Union seems to have embarked on a collision course with the Left, Right, and the Center. The forum finds itself in a similar situation as that of Columbia University, New York, which had recently hosted a speech by the anti-Semite Iranian President Ahmadinejad. The Union is defending its right to invite the two men with the only weapons that it has at its disposal words. Specifically, Voltaire's, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".
The recent hounding of artists, scientists, and writers of various hues Dan Brown, Richard Dawkins, Mel Gibson, M.F. Hussein, Deepa Mehta, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, the publishers of Jyllands-Posten... from public forums and by those in power, that too in nations that are supposedly free, is disturbing, to put it mildly. The list of those running from threats to their life and liberty because of what they said or wrote, seems to be growing faster than it has ever been.
Most often, if not always, religion is at the heart of these controversies. Since the day when Eve is supposed to have defied god by eating the apple of reason from the tree of knowledge, we have had this battle between, not good and evil, but reason and religion. Why is this reluctance to reject faith that cannot be corroborated with reason? More importantly, what does reason have to fear from faith, that it's sometimes wary of a confrontation? In my opinion, it should never be.
Years ago, when my daughter was in high school, an English teacher declared in her class that there was a racial hierarchy of intelligence, with the Whites/Caucasians at the top, followed by the Asians/Mongoloids, and the Africans/Negroids ending at the bottom. She identified the Asians as those with an yellowish complexion and slant eyes. Africans are those who have "a dark complexion, thick lips, and curly hair". There was an African American girl in the class, who promptly complained to her parents about this blatantly racist remark.
A colleague of mine (also of Indian origin) and I came to know of this incident, and were outraged. We both had children in the public schools, and believed that private views that cannot stand the test of reason, had no place in classrooms funded with taxpayers' money. In a multi-ethnic meeting organized by the girl's parents, we proposed that an African biologist and an Asian psychologist should debate the teacher in a public forum, with all the students of her class in attendance. The teacher should match her wits against a couple of those whom she had portrayed as "lesser" than herself, and defend her theory. Our argument was that there was no better way to restore the self-esteem and confidence of the girl, than seeing her teacher soundly defeated.
Sadly for the girl, who was not even allowed to attend the meeting, most of those present did not agree with us. The debate never materialized, and the girl's parents were happy with a suspension of the teacher and the creation of a new position in the school for racial counseling. Minorities would be given a preference in the recruitment for the position, as demanded of the school administration. Later, we learnt from mutual acquaintances that the teacher never changed her views, and continued to espouse them publicly, although not in her class.
When it comes to separating fact from fiction, reason is the only means that is available to us to choose wisely. As Galileo Galilei asserted,
I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
Schools and universities are the bastions of knowledge, reason, science, and above all, freedom. Forums and speeches hosted by these institutions are where theories are deduced, evidence is presented, and inferences are drawn. They cannot be open to some and closed to others, if reason were to prevail. What better way to shame the charlatans into oblivion than exposing their idiocy to as many as possible?