On 22 November 2014, The Spectator posted a cover article by columnist and Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill titled ‘Free speech is so last century. Today’s students want the “right to be comfortable”’. The article appears to have been instigated by two happenings: the cancellation of an abortion debate hosted by Oxford Students For Life, an anti-abortion society at the University of Oxford; and an article written for The Independent by Oxford student Niamh McIntyre, justifying why she and so many others felt the need to agitate for the debate to be cancelled.
What O’Neill and McIntyre appear to represent are two opposite ends of a constructed spectrum: O’Neill vociferously defending the right of any individual to say whatever (s)he wants in any context, and McIntyre attacking this right with equal vigour. In O’Neill’s corner is Tim Stanley, O’Neill’s prospective sparring partner in the cancelled debate; and in McIntyre’s, Tim Squirrell, President of the Cambridge Union. All four have written articles for nationally read publications expressing their views; at first glance, it would seem that O’Neill’s piece – by far the most rhetorical of the four – has had the largest readership (though my only metric is the number of social media shares it’s racked up).
This is troubling, because it’s largely founded on populist rhetoric, parlous analogies and unfounded assumptions. But none of the other principal participants in the debate seem to have it right either: Squirrell is equally culpable of unfair comparisons, invoking cases involving miscegenation, euthanasia and renowned pugilist Mike Tyson, and of superficial analyses of what constitutes ‘free speech’. Both he and McIntyre exaggerate a ‘threat’ that did not exist, with McIntyre proposing the controversial view that some things are simply not up for debate anywhere.
Here are the facts. Oxford Students For Life (OSFL), an obviously anti-abortion society with a transparent agenda, proposed a debate, whose motion was “This house believes Britain’s abortion culture hurts us all”. Stanley and O’Neill were invited, and the debate was to be held in the Blue Boar Lecture Theatre in the Oxford college Christ Church. The controversially phrased motion, and the sex of the two prospective speakers, rankled numerous Oxford students, who argued for it to be cancelled. It was indeed cancelled, and the fact that it was cancelled because of a bureaucratic screw-up (the OSFL didn’t give enough notice when they were hiring the room), and not because of the collective muscle of a group of pissed-off feminists, is irrelevant. Whatever the reason for the cancellation, there were those who felt vindicated by it, and those who felt wronged, thus setting up a passionately argued and important debate that is continuing to rage.
O’Neill felt most wronged of all, and took to The Spectator to vent his spleen. Unfortunately, the good points he raised – that youth culture is seen by many to be growing excessively protectionist, and that the threshold at which people take umbrage at things appears to be on the descent – was drowned out by the free-speech fracas he was intent on kicking up. O’Neill is no stranger to controversy; Spiked is widely seen to be libertarian, and his October article on ‘the tranny state’ is essentially nefarious. In it, he makes little or no attempt to side with the wants and proclivities of the trans population, dismissing their desires as those of weak-willed, self-hating sex freaks. (Side note: if McIntyre had objected to his appearance at Oxford because he was a known transphobe, some might have found her stance more understandable. Nowhere was this part of her argument.)
He continues his most recent socially conservative screed with a comparison of the University of Cambridge’s new sexual consent workshops with the ‘pre-crime’ initiatives that motor the plot of a Philip K. Dick dystopia (The Minority Report). This is unfair at best: in an energetic display of how little nuance he chooses to deploy when standing his ground, O’Neill equates long-termist preventative measures with short-termist punitive, totalitarian measures, shooting himself in the foot.
Even his free speech arguments don’t hold water. He and Stanley had a right to speak, but the protestors had the right to protest, and their victory is the victory of a particularly vocal group of students, rather than of a governmental, civic, or even formal university organisation (such as the Oxford Union) ‘crushing’ free speech. So the ‘free speech has been infringed’ argument is bollocks: a lack of free speech means a lack of ability to express your views, and O’Neill certainly has not lacked this ability. If anything, due to the soi-disant infringement of his ‘free speech’, he’s found a much larger audience.
O’Neill goes on to invoke arguments in favour of absolute artistic expression, deploring the view that N.W.A. or Tarantino had any influence on violent psychologies. He compares the censorious students of today with the censorious post-Bulger parents of twenty years ago, and the straw man he sets up seems convincing at first: he claims that upon his invocation of the previous generation’s pro-censorship faction, one student claimed, “Maybe those people were right.”
Maybe one student did say this, but this certainly does not seem to be part of a general trend. There does not seem to be a growing number of students clamouring against the censorship of art. Most students would be cognisant of the many contradictions inherent in the “morality of art” debate; let’s be honest, a huge number of students, male, female or otherwise, adore Tarantino, and I’m sure few would even object to student-organised screenings of films such as Triumph of the Will or The Birth of a Nation, whose racism has generally been excused by historicity and historical importance. It’s a real can of worms, a bundle of contradictions with no real resolution, which is precisely why it doesn’t belong in an article arguing that student groupthink – which represents the ironing-out of contradictions – is a growing problem. O’Neill’s invocation of it appears to be in the service of obfuscation, not of clarification.
But it isn’t only in his summoning of messy straw men that O’Neill stumbles. He seems to have misdiagnosed the situation in a wider sense. He claims that students (most students, apparently) have lost the “Hope I die before I get old” mentality, instead metamorphosing into boring – nay, dangerously repressive – fuddy-duddies who squirm at the very prospect of their worldview being challenged. But this isn’t quite what’s happening. To quote another Who lyric, many students of today are more worried about a “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” situation. They are uncomfortable with the status quo being dictated by heterosexual white men, and the bristling at the O’Neill-Stanley debate is best seen as a subconscious testimony to this discomfort. This discomfort wasn’t phrased or justified as well as it might have been; but it seems like a primarily emotional response that ultimately came from a ‘good place’.
Unfortunately, these good intentions were then mired in the rhetoric of ‘safety’, ‘security’, ‘protection’, and ‘uteri’, with the debate – rather than being seen as simply a bit silly – being elevated to ‘threat’ status. This is somewhat surprising, and not a little troubling. The debate was proposed by the OSFL, an openly anti-abortion group, and not by the Oxford Union or by the University itself. The OSFL, of course, had a clear agenda, as can be seen in the intentionally provocative phrasing of the motion; but ultimately, they wanted to open the topic to wider debate. Not haranguing, not demagoguery – debate. The fact that two men would have been engaged in this debate renders the debate unrepresentative, certainly. It would have been like having a debate on drugs in cycling chaired by two legless librarians: however interesting the points, they wouldn’t be being conceived, processed and articulated by those ‘qualified’ to discuss the issues at hand. Moreover, since debates are essentially dichotomous, they are formally incapable of dealing with the nuances and sensitivities that need to be considered in discussions of abortion. A panel discussion, comprising four or five people of various sexes and gender identities, would be a far better way of exploring this contentious issue.
But for Niamh to be concerned that men would be “telling [her and other women] what [they] should be allowed to do with [their] uterus” is an invalid concern. Moreover, it contradicts Niamh’s previous statement that the debate would dangerously render abortion something to be “mulled over and hypothesised”. When people “mull over” something, it does not usually culminate in imperiously delivered imperatives. The end result of the debate would not be women being ordered to manage their uterus in a way deemed fit by an all-male hegemony; it would be the summing up of points of view from either side. Right?
So despite the fact that the debate was inherently flawed, limited, unrepresentative, and basically daft in its proposed execution, it certainly was in no way as nefarious as Niamh has made it out to be. She claims “the threat pro-life groups pose to our bodily autonomy is real, not rhetorical”. Although this is certainly true, the real-not-rhetorical paradigm can be applied to pretty much any issue that has ever affected a vast number of people emotionally and psychologically. Does this mean that these issues cannot be rhetorically debated even in an enclosed room, where people can decide whether or not to attend? That hypothetical and/or academic discussions must be stifled because they’re not being held by people who are directly emotionally involved in the issues discussed?
Yes, the motion was ridiculously phrased. But motions are supposed to be interrogated, and it’s highly unlikely that the debate would have led to Stanley and O’Neill pontificating in unison about how awful abortions are. However infuriatingly phrased the motion, the debate would necessarily have been two-sided (given that it was being hosted by two fairly prominent journalists), and given that it was hosted at Oxford, one would think that anyone in attendance would have considered the motion with more than a pinch of salt anyway.
“I asserted that it would make me feel threatened in my own university,” says Niamh. But so what if the OSFL was dim enough to get two normative males to pontificate about abortion? Does it constitute a “threat”? Here it may be worth bringing up some sort of actual, legal delineation of what free speech may or may not entail – such as that used by the European Convention on Human Rights. Its tenth Article is a little hazy in places: “The exercise of [freedom of speech]… may be subject to such [restrictions] as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.” Of these, the only restriction relevant to this case is “the protection of morals”. Both key words here are undefined. Who decides the morals? – but more importantly, who decides when “protection” is needed? Protection, surely, would be necessary only against a real or pre-emptive threat. Does two men having a debate, even if it were to take place in a college, constitute a threat? In this case, almost certainly not. It was to be held in the Blue Boar Lecture Theatre, not in the refectory or out in the open. Attendance would have been voluntary. So even if the event had been an openly biased speech railing against abortion, it still would not constitute a threat. Therefore, protection would be unnecessary. Therefore, there would be no reason to cancel it except on principle. This would be more understandable, but the protestors have insisted that the debate represented an actual, rather than merely a conceptual, threat to their ‘safe space’, which I hope we can all agree is horseshit.
The paternalistically well-meaning Tim Squirrell has also been the perpetrator of some specious logic. For instance, to underline the ‘threatening’ nature of the debate, he uses the hypothetic example of an immigration debate that ends with the anti-immigration speaker triumphing. This goes on to be (hypothetically) seized upon by The Daily Mail, and in turn reinforces the extant prejudices of the wider public. Well, perhaps. It’s more than a little far-fetched that this would constitute an actual long-term threat to immigrants; I don’t see this hypothetical situation rallying new anti-immigration nuts to the cause. It’s even less likely that an Oxford society debate on abortion would affect public opinion. Abortion has been legal here for nearly fifty years, and is generally regarded as a personal choice, not a compulsion; immigration doesn’t work in the same way. Without getting into a debate about the morality of abortion, it’s probably safe to say that whatever the outcome of the debate – even if it were hosted, motion intact, by the Oxford Union – it would have negligible (if any) impact on public opinion. Again, I am pointing out that opposing a debate on principle is one thing; pretending that there is an actual threat to “marginalised communities” or to ‘the safety and security of women’ is another. It is this latter claim that has been invoked by Squirrell and McIntyre, and it is this claim that is, again, horseshit.
He is right to pick up on how stupidly the motion was phrased, but, like his new nemesis O’Neill, invokes incontrovertibly extreme and unfair analogies: a miscegenation debate and a debate about euthanizing homosexuals. He also claims that the location of the debate is important – “universities are also our homes… it is [the college residents’] right to feel safe in a space that they call their home”. The debate’s location is indeed important, but although the debate would have been held in Christ Church, considered by many to be a home, we should be more specific: it would have been held in the Blue Boar Lecture Theatre, which is probably not considered by anyone to be a home. As previously stated, no-one would have to be subjected to the debate; indeed, the Lecture Theatre, unlike the students’ homes, is a designated ‘meeting room’.
Ultimately, this sort of excessive protectionism endorsed by Squirrell and McIntyre isn’t stable, and isn’t realistic. McIntyre and others did succeed in getting the debate shut down, thus scoring a short-term success; but what they’ve actually done is be counter-productive by pissing a lot of intelligent (and, in some cases, powerful) people off. And these pissed-off people are not always liable to argue sensibly. O’Neill is a good example, with his article’s 16,400 Facebook shares suggesting that his populist rhetoric is going down quite well with many. Hugo Schmidt, also incensed at Squirrell’s stance, has (somewhat humorously) demanded the latter’s expulsion from the University, and has excoriated Squirrell’s arguments in a fairly widely-read Varsity article.
Not that making people angry is in itself a bad thing; but Squirrell and McIntyre have reinforced the increasingly held stereotype of the ‘censorious feminist’ – a stereotype that, like any stereotype, is not totally divorced from reality. I’ve witnessed this myself as a member and regular frequenter of the popular feminist Facebook group Cuntry Living, which appears to have become increasingly insular and alienating even as it aspires to intersectionality and inclusivity. Some members might have a poor grasp of satire, while others are far too quick to take umbrage. One member recently posted a story about how a man at the table next to her at lunch began to criticise her speech and behaviour for no good reason. On this post, a guy innocuously commented that he was in the same restaurant at the same time, but oddly enough didn’t hear this altercation. The original poster’s response was: “Busted, I just made it all up. Just like catcalling and date-rape, it doesn’t really exist, and I just wanted to make a fuss about nothing. You got me!” Cuntry Living is riddled with this kind of over-defensiveness, which, exacerbated by some cis-gender white men actually apologising for their own identity before commenting, serves only to alienate people from feminism. And I’m not one to put much faith in the Tab, but the results of its recent survey, which showed that a third of CL group members were “too scared to post in the group” (and that two thirds of group members felt the group’s atmosphere could be improved), didn’t surprise me.
The anecdotes I’ve mentioned, of course, don’t represent all Cuntry Living members; I remain an interested member of the group, and Cuntry Living isn’t exclusively representative of feminism anyway. But the increasing disillusionment with the group reflects a lot of people’s impression that feminists pretend to inclusivity while in reality talking in jargon, policing groups and events, and generally being indignant. The fact that only a minority of actual feminists behave like this is irrelevant; this sort of behaviour can be alienating if it’s vocal. Greater self-awareness, and less excessive protectionism, is needed. There may well be grounds for abrogating debates, but in this particular case, the grounds are either non-existent or poorly phrased by the protesters. And repeated calls to prefix posts, articles and anecdotes with ‘trigger warnings’, while understandable in virtual ‘safe spaces’, are solipsistic at best and psychologically invidious at worst. It’s hard to dodge the accusation that it’s mollycoddling, though naturally, coming from a heterosexual male who has never suffered sexual harassment, this opinion wouldn’t have a lot of currency in some places.
It’s been a strong year for feminism, considering its increased visibility and star power, as well as the silencing and shunning of Dapper Laughs and Julien Blanc. But they deserved to be silenced and shunned. They are not simply two middle-aged white men debating what is predominantly a women’s issue; they are two men who never gave a fig about women’s issues in the first place. They reasonably had their free speech quashed because they were the practitioners of a particularly vile demagoguery. Neither Stanley nor O’Neill, despite the latter’s questionable views, can be thus accused; and, although the protesters were perfectly within their rights to block the debate, the responses to the debate’s cancellation betray two worrying trends: an almost aggressively defensive lowering of psychological comfort thresholds, which can’t be good for societal fortitude; and popular, populist free-speech rhetoric that is in serious danger of dragging feminism into disrepute.
The next decade or two are sure to be interesting ones for feminism.