My introductory comments to this reblog are not brief – and they are not brief because this is a matter that is very close to my heart. It concerns an instance of political freedom of speech being institutionally suppressed by my alma mater, Christ Church, Oxford University, and I speak as an alumnus with a strong affection for the place I came to know as my intellectual home. As a student I had felt welcome and safe to make my voice heard no matter how esoteric or controversial my views were. From French and Italian literature tutorials to ad hoc discussions with friends and acquaintances in the Junior Common Room in the early hours in the morning, no matter how sharply we disagreed there was usually an abiding bond of respect for each other’s right to hold their perspective. It was a bond that I treasured, because it gave me the room and the freedom to grow into what I am today, and it pains me to see in light of recent events that it is the ones who would see that bond dissolved who are holding the greatest sway over the college’s powers that be.
I found out few days ago about a high profile abortion debate that was to be hosted within the grounds of my old college, and was cancelled by the college authorities on spurious grounds of ‘security’. This was after a radical feminist group within the college had threatened a disruptive protest over Facebook in their insistence that male pro-life voices had no right to a public platform in the college and expressed their aim to have the event shut down at all costs and by all means. Sympathisers roused support from the undergraduate democratic body to the effect that their representatives should convince the authorities to terminate the debate in view of potential ‘welfare issues’ and ‘security risks’. The college authorities, in spite of possessing the power to act against the student body, granted their request on the rationale that had been presented to them by the representatives, and shut down the event before the protests could take place. The high profile debate was to be held between two prominent male journalists, one pro-choice and one pro-life, and was organised by Oxford Students for Life. The story has been covered in student, national, international and transnational media and the institutional suppression of discussion that it constitutes, as well as effective success of what was a deliberate plot by the radical feminist group to institutionally suppress the right to freedom of political expression in a university setting, has outraged many individuals, Christian and non-Christian, students and non-students, left-wing and right-wing, and of pro-choice and pro-life persuasions.
I was appalled by the way my alma mater used its power to silence voices rather than to nurture them, and to censor thought rather than promote it. It was to a large extent Oxford that taught me how to think, and how to express myself through my thinking. It shaped me – like a nourishing mother – by growing and liberating my mind and my voice, and it did so especially when it engaged with that voice by disagreeing with it and challenging it. For this, I have the deepest respect and a warmth of regard towards all who personally taught me, and it would be irrational – let alone unfair – to tar them with the brush of the institution.
But in a broader sense I feel betrayed by her. By using paltry excuses to shut down discussion between these two male journalists at the bidding of the politically protected pro-choice feminist party that wanted to ensure the suppression of pro-life voices, I feel that she has by extension illegitimized the voices of all those who differ from the liberal orthodoxy by signalling that our time is up, our toleration as dissenting voices is over, by sheer force of majoritarian muscle the door to the debating platform has been slammed in our faces to force a close on the negotiations, our voices are no longer worthy of being heard, and we are no longer welcome to live and move and have our being in the context of this forum of intellectual life. These are voices that were still being developed and shaped within her walls by the internal instruments and organs that had been ordained to do so – voices like mine, who sing similar songs as mine, who had trusted in the sustenance she provided for our minds, and the space to grow into what we were destined to be. By removing this sustenance, shutting down this space and giving in to the pressure to silence, censor, cancel, abort, she has struck out at her own progeny rather than equipping it for its eventual carriage into a world that would strike out at it for her. The title of the debate would have been “This House Believes that Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All”. Whether Britain’s abortion culture hurts us all is evidently still be up for debate – but I will lend my voice to say that even in the meagre form of my alma mater’s intellectual termination, it has hurt me, and hurt me deeply.
For the original story I’ll just post a few news links – a piece by each of the guests of the debate, one righty and one lefty, an apparent insider scoop from Buzzfeed with a lot of primary material, a further break-down of the arguments from later after the outbreak of the news, and a broader politico-ideological commentary from First Things from a more US-centric perspective.
Image credit: Tom Quad, Christ Church 2004-01-21.jpg, photograph by Toby Ord, taken from Wikimedia Commons
We didn’t ask to be in the middle of a free speech controversy. But free speech does matter, and we’d like to set out why we think Tuesday’s planned debate – between Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill on ‘This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All’ – should have gone ahead.
While we have hosted two all-women panel debates over the past year, this motion was about the wider social questions raised by abortion, and Tim and Brendan were invited as well-known commentators who have something to contribute to the discussion. But last weekend, a Facebook page was set up by OxrevFems denouncing us for our choice of two male speakers and threatening to sabotage the event by using ‘oh so disruptive instruments’.
In one exchange on the page, a student of Christ Church – where the debate was to be held – asked a campaigner from Abortion…
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