The way not to win a debate at the Oxford Union, I’ve just discovered, is to start your speech with a casual quip about Aids. It wasn’t a scripted joke. Just one of those things you blurt out in those terrifying initial moments when you’re trying to win the audience over with your japeish, irreverent, mildly self-parodying human side before launching into your argument proper.
It only happened because when my turn came to speak there wasn’t any still water for me to drink and I was parched. So various Union officers proffered me the dregs of the other speakers’ half-drunk bottles. ‘Oh my God, I might get Aids,’ I ad-libbed, to no general amusement whatsoever. From that moment things only went from bad to H.M. Bateman.
First it was just the odd groan and hiss of disapproval. But the longer I went on, the more it became clear that even the more tasteful, light and apolitical jokes I’d prepared were going down with the crowd like a cauldron of cold sick. As for my more trenchant offerings — on ‘cis gender’; on feminazis; on the ludicrousness of ‘safe -spaces’, etc — well if I’d just barbecued a kitten and offered round titbits to taste I doubt I’d have got a much less enthusiastic response. We lost the debate by an enormous margin.
Afterwards, the Union’s charming Aussie president explained where I’d gone wrong. ‘You were lost from the moment you joked about Aids,’ he said. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Really,’ he confirmed. ‘Cis gender, too. You can never joke about that,’ said one of his mates, sotto voce, glancing nervously over his shoulder. ‘Even saying the word makes me uncomfortable. You don’t know who’s listening.’
And the depressing thing is, they meant it. Of course, I should have known this from Brendan O’Neill’s heartfelt piece last year about Oxford’s mirthless, free-speech-averse Stepford Students. But until you’ve experienced it for yourself, you’re inclined to dismiss this stuff as journalistic licence. ‘Surely the place can’t have changed that much since I was here?’ you think.
It has, though. It’s like The Walking Dead. Especially in Wadham, apparently, where pretty much the entire college has been infected. (But then, Wadham, eh? Home of Terry Eagleton, the man who, in the only lecture I ever attended, told me it was just as valid to deconstruct the telephone directory as it was to read Shakespeare.) ‘Actually there probably aren’t all that many of them but their influence is disproportionate to their numbers,’ another undergraduate explained. ‘They’re so shrill and angry and difficult that everyone censors themselves just to avoid attracting their attention.’
Of course, you could argue, the lefty loons have always been with us. In my day, every college JCR was desperate to support the miners and rename its bar the -Mandela room. But this time feels different — for a number of reasons. One is the -cowardice — or, worse, eager acquiescence — of the authorities in the face of this pressure. When, last year, student activists sought to close down a Christ Church debate on abortion because the speakers were men (and therefore unqualified to talk about women’s experience), it was the college’s administrators — the censors — who actually cancelled the event in the name of sparing ‘residents’ ‘unnecessary distress’.
Another is the fanatical cry-bully solipsism of the activists. One of the arguments used in a (happily unsuccessful) attempt earlier this year to ban sub fusc (the formal clothing you wear for exams) was that being of medieval origin, it was inherently sexist and likely to put women at a disadvantage by making them feel excluded and uncomfortable. Such loons have probably always been with us but, thanks to the internet, their weird minority views now seem to them normal, and thanks to social media they have the power to spread a virus which might once have been contained within their lonely student digs.
But definitely the worst aspect of this navel-gazing obsession with trivia like ‘transgendered’ people, ‘safe spaces’ and (nonexistent) ‘rape culture’ is the crushing effect it has had on freedom of expression. Quite the most important thing I learned in my time at Oxford is that, just so long as you can eloquently marshal sufficient evidence to support your case, you can argue any damn thing you want. Not only is it intellectually liberating but, as Milton argued in Areopagitica, it’s how we learn to differentiate good ideas from bad ideas: by testing them in the crucible of debate.
For my undergraduate generation — and I suspect for all those before mine — this was a given. Which is why when I opposed the motion ‘This house would break up media empires in defence of democracy’, it just didn’t occur to me till it was too late that it wouldn’t be enough merely to point out how illiberal and authoritarian it was; that first, I’d actually have to spell out why illiberal and authoritarian were bad and why free speech is preferable.
If I could do my turn all over again last Thursday, I’d go in much harder. There’d be no lame jokes or flip asides, no doomed attempts to ingratiate myself with kids mostly so brainwashed that all one of the left-wing speakers had to do to elicit a roar of smug consensual laughter was to utter the words ‘Fox News’. Instead, with weary patience I’d explain how the moment we lose sight of why ‘free speech’ matters is the moment we surrender the keys to the enemy at the gates. I would still have lost the debate. But the next evening there would have been those events in Paris...