It isn’t especially difficult to tyrannize a group who do everything you tell them to without resistance and without hesitation. I imagine it isn’t especially thrilling either, but then does a fight well won really compare to the riskless and permanent state of victory granted by the instillation of terror in the minds of one’s opponents? There is a growing contingent in the UK who could readily be asked this question, provided they do not take violent offence at it being asked.
I am speaking of the group titled Oxrev Fems (now deleted), and their Facebook event, ‘What The F**k Is Abortion Culture?’ In case you missed it, Christ Church, Oxford had planned to host a debate entitled ‘This House Believes That Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All’, sponsored by the Oxford Students For Life, a pro-life group. The debate was ultimately canceled because of ‘security and welfare issues’ – news-speak for the expectation of violence.
You don’t need to take my word for it; the instigators of the protest group outlined in the event description their intent to use “disruptive instruments to help demonstrate to the anti-choicers just what we think of their debate.” We might charitably think that their disruptive instrument of choice would be that of ‘ideas’, but then that would constitute participation in the debate, not the fanatical desire to have it shut down.
Oxrev Fems call the “super cute debate” part of a “sh***y initiative” and that, with respect to the participants exercising their freedom of speech, “we don’t think this is okay”. To be absolutely clear, it is not just the ideas they don’t think are okay, but their expression at all. They did not want to make clear their stance on the issue, they wanted to silence the opposition, and they were more than happy to threaten violence to achieve this end.
The actual issue of the debate here is completely immaterial. Evaluating the slivers of actual information between the bouts of slander, self-contradiction, identity politics and profanity, I am in broad agreement with their stance on the matter. There is nothing at all wrong with taking issue with the assumptions inherent in the title of the debate by addressing a blatantly biased and problematic expression. But there is everything wrong with addressing these issues by stifling their expression.
Now we may argue that the College, as a private landowner, has every right to ban the debate on its property, and I would agree that it has this legal right. But that does not extend to the claim that it has the moral right. Rather, I believe it had the moral duty to see that the threats of violence did not prevail, and free and open debate was celebrated. It abandoned this moral duty, and the debate was cancelled.
Setting aside these vaguely legal principles, do we not see a moral case for open debate? Moreover, do we not enshrine freedom of speech in law precisely because of this moral imperative? If an idea is truly wrong, is it not crucial that we understand why? Or else have we really exercised thought to begin with? Do we have an opinion at all, or are we parroting the dictum of our censors?
I do not claim this to be at all an original lament. These arguments for freedom of expression are rooted in The Enlightenment. What is somewhat novel and disturbing here is the rationale behind the censorship. It is not that the censored information is harmful to the ruling regime, but rather it is harmful to the hearers. That the expression of these ideas will damage the “mental and physical security” of those upon whose precious ears they fall. “Damage the mental and physical security” is a trumped-up version of the speculative notion that nobody has a right to hear these ideas because hearing them may well be a gateway drug to thinking them.
When processing WomCam’s proclamation that, “it is absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies,” I would encourage you to cut the statement short after ‘listening’.
We should always listen. We should exchange ideas amicably, disagree passionately, and refrain from unprovoked violence. Oxford Students For Life released a statement that they were “confident that most Oxford students would prefer free speech to censorship, and we look forward to continuing this hugely important conversation.”
But they are wrong. Christ Church failed. It caved. And the rest of Oxford did little better. That their students prefer free speech is moot if they stand by and do nothing when it is attacked. They were cowards, and this suppression of freedom of expression must serve as a warning to us all. If we value reasoned debate we must defend it.