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How debating should work

Censors rob their fellow students of the right to argue—and the right to storm out

By Alex Shilling  

A building at the University of Dundee—which the writer attended ©Ydam, Wikimedia Commons

Today almost every issue is a partisan one. During the jousting contest that is Prime Minister’s Questions, the Prime Minister of the day is rarely able to answer a question without a barrage of noisy dissent from the benches opposite. Yet a few weeks ago, Theresa May slammed the provision of “safe spaces” at universities designed to ensure debate does not cause offence to students as “extraordinary”—and did so to no vocal opposition. Have we come across an issue that the left and right can unite on?

In the House, maybe. A spokesperson for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn didn’t criticise May for her comments in response to a question from Tory MP Victoria Atkins, saying that it was up to universities to decide their own policies. But whilst there may be an awkward consensus amongst politicians on the matter, there is anything but in our universities.

Safe spaces have been introduced by some student unions along with other policies such as “no-platforming” speakers with controversial views. The likes of Germaine Greer, Boris Johnson and Peter Tatchell have all been no-platformed in recent months.

The conventional wisdom from the right has been that these actions are the work of a bunch of special snowflake namby pampy students who can’t handle people having different views to them. Yet 63 per cent of current students support the Nation Union of Students’ no-platforming policy and for all its political posturing, the NUS cannot influence policies of individual universities. So are our ancient institutions to blame?

I was fortunate enough to attend Dundee University, where speakers with a wide variety of trenchantly held views were invited to speak; from the former leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond to one-time Scottish Conservative leadership contender Murdo Fraser, as well as many hustings for elections to the student union.

The views of all speakers I observed were heard respectfully and typically the evening would end with a quick question and answer session, where those who disagreed with the points raised had the opportunity to have their say and would do so passionately.

But at other universities, such as York, King’s College, London, Oxford and Cambridge, no-platforming has become normal. The current Foreign Secretary was no-platformed at King’s College in April, where he had been set to speak on the EU referendum. He had the invitation revoked after his allegedly racist comment about Barack Obama’s Kenyan ancestry.

Obama himself has criticised safe spaces in the past, saying last year that those who disagreed with speakers at universities “should have an argument with them.” I’m inclined to agree with the US President—but I am fundamentally opposed to his assertion that this is simply an issue of students needing to be less sensitive.

The current format of public speaking, in the universities I mention above and others, disadvantages both speakers and audience. If we are to protect some of the most vital elements of our democracy; the right to express strong views, the right to disagree strongly and the maintenance of well-informed, passionate, even angry debate, our institutions need to realise the threat to them from what safe spaces have been allowed to become and the debating format that has permitted it.

A public debate should be a partnership between speaker and audience, with respect at its heart. If speakers are preaching hatred towards a minority group, they should not be invited to speak. But having made the decision to invite the speaker in the first place, universities need to stick to their guns and defend their choice.

Students who find a speaker’s views abhorrent, offensive or just plain wrong have two choices. They can exercise their right not to give the speaker a hearing and boycott the meeting—or they can hold the speaker to account and express their disagreements at the end of the session, strongly but respectfully.

The current format for debates at universities denies students both those rights. Atkins was right to say at PMQs that it is only a minority of students who no-platform speakers—but the act of a few no-platforming a speaker robs the majority of the opportunity to exercise their rights, whichever one they choose.

Furthermore, until every university commits to a policy of a mandatory Q&A session with the speaker at the end of every session (of say, 20 minutes), the speaker is at liberty to rush off without properly being held to account for their views by their audience.

As a teacher, I want to encourage my students to nurture passions and interests, particularly on political and social issues. I want them to hone their debating skills so that they are able to form coherent, well-informed arguments that they can express passionately and with respect for their opponent.

But until universities tackle what safe spaces have been allowed to become, and instill a format that allows both speaker and audience to have their say; where speakers are held to account and students listen politely to views they strongly disagree with (in itself, an excellent thing for self-development), free and open debates in our universities will continue to decline and the next generation of communicators, politicians and citizens will be the poorer for it.

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