Brendan O’Neill’s gross mischaracterisation of Trinity College Dublin and its students in two widely read publications was unequivocally reprehensible. He sought to shamelessly thrust his own name into the public eye at the expense of a society who welcomed him as a guest, and did so by foregoing an accurate portrayal of the events that unfolded.
But O’Neill, in his professional role as a political commentator, sits far closer to Donald Trump than Enda Kenny on the spectrum of courting controversy. He espouses contentious and often offensive views under the guise of brutally honest contrarianism. This is not news to anyone with knowledge of his writing, and it certainly was not news to the University Philosophical Society when they invited him to speak at their weekly debate. Recognising that fact should temper any sense of outrage over the things that he said or did in relation to his visit.
Societies have an understandable interest in growing their brand, attracting new members, and seeking publicity in any way they deem desirable. They take many implicit gambles in pursuit of those goals. The biggest of these gambles carry the greatest risk of failure, up to and including hurt feelings, bad publicity, and tarnished reputations.
The intent here is not to argue against inviting controversial guests as a general rule. Students enjoy varied and lively events, and arguably benefit from the opportunity to hear unpopular views while formulating their own (often internal) critical response. Societies likewise generally prefer any form of publicity rather than the absence of such.
But, given the inherent imbalance of power in these situations, it is important to remember the true lack of accountability that exists between internationally recognised guests and any single student society. The former exert more leverage in almost any conceivable situation, and we have seen, on more than one occasion, a willingness to abuse that power for self-promotion.
Going forward, this dynamic seems unlikely to change. We don’t necessarily need it to, as long as proper consideration is given to weighing the costs and benefits when societies make these contentious decisions. Societies know the rules of the game they are playing. No one should be surprised when controversial people do controversial things.