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Brendan O’Neill writes this week’s cover piece on his encounters with ‘Stepford Students’ - a censorious mob who try to shut down debates that they don’t like. His comes out this week after some Stepfords managed to shut down a debate about abortion at Christ Church by threatening to disrupt it with ‘instruments’. The college cancelled the debate, between Brendan, who is pro-choice, and Tim Stanley, who is pro-life, because of ‘security and welfare issues’.
You can read the full piece here, or listen to Brendan debate Harriet Brown from Oxford University in our podcast here. Another member of the group who succeeded in shutting down the debate, Niamh McIntyre, wrote about why she did it for the Independent here, while Tim Squirrell, president of the Cambridge Union, has set out ‘what freedom of speech really means’ in a piece for the Tab here.
Once you’ve allowed the boiling rage of these students to reduce to its component parts, you are left with two arguments:
1. The debate is being held by two men who will never have to contemplate having an abortion and therefore are only discussing it academically.
2. The debate is being held in a college, a place where students have to live and work.
As O’Neill says, this first point is ugly identity politics. But even if Brendan and Tim do hold opinions that are less relevant to the debate because they will never be in the situation where an abortion is something they can consider, it is still a tremendous leap to say that they cannot air those opinions.
We quite often take more seriously the arguments of people affected directly by laws: many of those in the assisted dying debate have a direct personal interest, whether they be Terry Pratchett arguing he would like control over his final days to Tanni Grey-Thompson arguing that legalising assisted dying would put people with disabilities, like her, in a dangerous situation. But we do not then refuse those who are not dying or disabled a voice. Our lawmakers frequently make changes that benefit or harm those whose lives they will never experience because of a different accident of birth. It is worth remembering at this point that the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced by someone who never claimed to possess a uterus, David Steel.
What we end up with is debate only being limited to approved people, those who the mob feel are ‘qualified’ to discuss certain issues. O’Neill and Harriet Brown seem to agree on abortion, yet Brown thinks that only she and a list of other approved speakers can air their opinions while O’Neill must stay silent. In this case it is because the speakers’ accidents of birth as men mean they cannot become pregnant. At another time this might involve stopping a debate because the religious ‘worldview’ of the speaker apparently renders their views irrelevant, even though everyone has a worldview that informs their morality, whether religious, relativist or anything else.
The mob approves the qualified speakers on behalf of others. Niamh McIntyre writes ‘as you can imagine, those of us with uteruses were incredibly angry’, and in doing so claims to speak for women in general. As she and Brown prefer not to listen to men, here, from a woman to a woman, is a bit of advice: you don’t speak for everyone with a uterus and some of us are perfectly happy to hear what other people, regardless of their anatomy, have to think about controversial issues.
You might leave the debate thinking that both Tim and Brendan were dull and ill-informed and that as blokes who can’t get pregnant they aren’t as interesting as someone considering it themselves. But that is a judgement, not a reason to shut down open debate.
As for the second argument, what is the relevance of it being held in a college? Oxford college libraries are full of books which are in turn full of ideas, debates and points that some of the inhabitants might disagree with. Oxford colleges have chapels where services might once in a while describe the Christian God as the only God, which might offend someone who believes something else. Does that make them unsafe spaces?
The motion didn’t suggest that either speaker wanted to incite violence against women, or argue that they should be physically forced to have abortions or indeed forced not to have them. They were not, as far as we can tell given the debate never took place, going to tell everyone to picket abortion clinics and intimidate the women attending them. They were going to hold a debate which students were free to attend or ignore, and then free to make up their mind or hold to their already formed opinion at the end of the debate. This is why we debate abortion in this country (or at least should be able to) while refusing a visa to ‘pick-up artist’ Julien Blanc who advises men to ‘choke’ women.
Where is the threat to mental safety in a debate, other than the danger that you might find the indelible lines you drew around an opinion are easier to wash away than you believed? Perhaps that in itself is terrifying to some people, that their opinions might be challenged by a speaker. It would be much safer if those opinions were never challenged at all and that no-one else in the college had the opportunity to consider two points of view.
An opinion is not an irresistible force, it does not hurt you physically. It cannot stop you aborting a foetus or indeed force you to do so. It might upset you, enrage you, delight or convince you, but you don’t even need to do something as terrifying as changing your mind after hearing it, if you choose. You might be sad that Brendan says this or that Tim thinks that, but offence is not an illness that doctors can treat. As Brendan says, these censorious students are plumping for ‘the right never to be challenged by disturbing ideas or mind-battered by offensiveness’.
This isn’t about feminism or abortion rights or any other specific matter. It is about people who are too lazy to construct a decent argument shouting down others. Stopping a debate by intimidation is no more impressive than the man in a pub who starts a fight because he is too drunk or too stupid to use words. The students who shut down the debate at Christ Church are at one of the best universities in the world and do not need to behave this way. How sad that their education, that so many others yearn to have, has not given them faith in that finest of things, the argument.