I was interested to watch the kerfuffle in England over the past several days over the appearance on the BBC's premier political talk show, Question Time, of Nick Griffith, leader of the neo-Fascist and overtly racist British National Party. Critics from across the political spectrum have condemned the BBC's decision to give a far-right party such exposure while the BBC have said it is not their role to censor and if a legally-constituted political party has a fair degree of public support they should be included in the debate, and subjected to fair questioning. The BNP won two seats in the elections for the European Parliament and have several council seats, including in London where they won over 5% in the Mayoral elections.
A protest was held outside the BBC's studio during taping on Thursday which resulted in several protesters breaking through police lines and into the BBC's foyer.
A debate which began prior to airing of Question Time has continued after it, centered around the question of how to best deal with extremism in a democratic society. Is the BNP better ignored or exposed? Is it more effective to protest outside or ask informed pointed questions inside, as the Question Time audience did?
One aspect of this debate, which I've largely been reading through the pages of the Guardian newspaper, is how strikingly thoughtful it is. Unlike in America when people talk of fascism the thing they are describing is at least somewhat fascistic. The commentators seem to be geniunely wrestling with hard questions, not simply scoring political or culture war points.
The incident reminded me of a time while I was at university when the deeply unpopular (to university students) Minister for Education visited the campus to give a speech. A decent-sized student protest took place outside the hall he was speaking in. I was one of the protesters and, like most of the others, filed into the hall for the speech itself when the time came. The boos and cat-calls began during the introduction and rose to an impossible volume, accompanied by feet-stomping and chanting, when the Minister himself got up to give his speech. He soon had to abandon the attempt.
I was both saddened and annoyed at the time. Despite my passionate opposition to much the government was doing, and my active participation in the protest prior to the speech, I had wanted to hear what he had to say, and was looking forward to the tough questions I was sure would follow. And I strongly felt, and still do, that actions of this kind present the advocates for your cause, and by extension the cause itself, in a very unfavourable light.
I think all three of these actions - protest, listening, and questioning - are critical and fundamental to a democracy. When protest becomes an alternative to, or is used as a tool to prevent, either listening or genuine questioning, as has been the case with the Tea Party protests at Town Hall meetings (and, on the left, by Code Pink and others), our democracy is diminished but so too is our cause.
I find it hard to believe that anyone is ever convinced by shouting. When people shout at us our reasoning shuts down. We stop listening, because we know that there will be no reciprocity, no dialogue.
The people who most effectively stood in opposition to the vile policies of the BNP were the Question Time audience inside, who exposed these policies through informed questioning, while still giving Nick Griffith his chance to speak, not those who threw themselves at police lines and chanted outside.
Protest is a vital part of free speech and can be an effective political tactic, but when it is used to deny the speech of others it is neither.