Dear me. 2012 was only two days old when I rejected my first invitation of the year. It was to speak at the Hist, at Trinity College Dublin, on the subject of "freedom of speech". I am grateful to the nice people of the Hist for their kindness, but let me make it clear. Speaking about freedom of speech at a place like Trinity is like discussing virginity in a brothel.
It shouldn't be necessary to explain what free speech is, but it clearly is. At bottom, it is allowing someone, whose opinions you absolutely detest, to speak about those opinions in respectful silence, without their being barracked, abused, howled down or threatened with violence.
Yet far from being in the forefront of a campaign for free speech, TCD has been denying freedom of speech to "right-wing" speakers for some considerable time: most notoriously, and most frequently, the historian David Irving, but more recently the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin.
The campaign against David Irving's right to free speech in Trinity was -- at least on one occasion -- led, quite hilariously, by Sinn Fein, because of his supposedly "pro-Nazi" views. How wonderful. For were Sinn Fein-IRA not in formal alliance with the Nazis? Did they not receive assistance from the Third Reich? And did the Shinners, up until recently, not annually prostrate themselves before the statue of the IRA quisling Sean Russell at Fairview Park -- the only statue to a Nazi collaborator in the entire EU?
How I love to be told by such people that I may not hear the opinions of the historian David Irving, when I have the honour of bearing the name of an Irish volunteer against fascism, a soldier-uncle who left his young bones in Africa.
There is a querulous convention amongst certain "liberal" libertarians, whenever they find themselves defending freedom of speech, to begin by deploring the opinions of those whom others wish to silence. To seek the good esteem of opponents of free speech is always futile, for it merely strengthens their insufferable self-righteousness; and to argue against a ban on the grounds that there are better ways of defeating the opposed speaker is to misunderstand the meaning of freedom. For it has no other purpose than freedom. It is what it is: freedom to speak and freedom to hear, regardless of any intellectual outcome. The only stipulation to such freedom is that no hate, or physical harm to person or property results. That some people might be "offended" by certain opinions is no doubt a shame, but both unavoidable and sometimes welcome. For what remains of freedom of speech, if every imagined susceptibility is to be protected against it?
As for myself, I yearn to offend the censorious, the smug and the sanctimonious: a sickly trinity indeed.
Speaking of which, I note that at a meeting in Synge Hall, no less, the College Graduates Students Union voted in favour of Nick Griffin being denied the right to speak at their alma mater. How perfect; for did a somewhat earlier gathering not try to silence the playwright after whom that hall is named, merely for using the term "shift" about a woman's underwear? The censors' subjects might change, but their preposterously pompous instincts do not.
The historical paradox is that the academic values of the mob of idiots who once tried to silence the Abbey have now colonised TCD. So complete has been the cultural seizure that nobody notices the fact that the noble Protestant tradition of Robert Gregory -- who physically fought Synge's Sinn Fein opponents with his bare fists -- is now marginalised and powerless and perhaps even dead within Trinity's walls. For where were the Robert Gregorys of Trinity today when freedom of speech was crying out for them?
And please spare me the fatuous assertions that Nick Griffin is not John Millington Synge. Freedom of speech is not dependent on intellect or eloquence or political content. Quite the opposite. It tolerates ideas that are offensive, cretinous, ludicrous, bizarre, grotesque and nauseating, merely drawing the line at incitement to hate or to inflict violence. But one should not deny freedom of speech merely on the suspicion that such an incitement is "possible". Only if there are solid grounds for believing that it is likely may someone's right to freedom of speech be curtailed. And in the case of Nick Griffin, whatever he might have said in the past, his days of rabble-rousing hate-speech seem to be over.
Well, at least he never killed anyone -- which is more than you can say about the various members of an IRA army council that authorised the massacre of the 10 Protestant workmen at White Cross, the abduction, murder and burial of Jean McConville, or the slaughter of 21 revellers in Birmingham; and so on. You do know, don't you, that Trinity has never sought to silence the on-campus ravings of Sinn Fein-IRA, an organisation that regularly did infinitely more evil in a single year than the BNP has ever done throughout its entire existence. I believe I am entitled to ask why.