Censorship on Campus?

Was it wrong for two men (Brendan O’Neill and Timothy Stanley) to be offered a platform to discuss abortion rights at Oxford University? And does the prospect of such an event taking place (organised by the Oxford Students for Life, incidentally) raise “security concerns, both physical and mental”, as a spokesman for the college suggested?

Niamh McIntyre who claims to have “helped shut down … [the] debate” wrote a piece in the Independent last week in which she complains that the society organising the debate “thought it was appropriate to let men discuss if and when women should be able to make fundamental decisions about their bodies”. Well, the topic is undeniably controversial but whether or not the event seemed to her appropriate isn’t really the issue. The point is whether it was permissible. For many people steeped in the doctrine of identity politics it is unconscionable for anybody to discuss, or even comment on, experiences that do not relate directly to them. Of course, if all discussions of abortion canvassed only the opinions of men it would be ludicrous. But no fair minded person can suggest that men are consulted more often than women on the issue.

The other problem is the constant refrain: “I won’t be told what I can do with my body”. But what we may or may not do to our bodies is dictated to us pretty often. Taking certain drugs is illegal; selling sex is illegal in many countries in the world (though, admittedly not the UK). I can see that the issue of abortion has a special potency; I am merely making the point that it is not unusual for there to be restrictions – whether cultural or legal – on what we may do to our own bodies. In any case, debating a subject is not tantamount to forging injunctions on the proper way to behave. The objection rings hollow.

What’s strange in this case and others like it, is the reluctance of the boycotters to admit that they are calling for a curb on freedom. What else can you call this? Fine, you may think that the importance of free speech is trumped here by some other principle but you should be clear that that’s your position. Ms. McIntyre tries to make a distinction between freedom of speech and access to platforms, and she is partly right. Freedom of speech does not mean having at your disposal any venue or platform you like. The fact that I cannot be allowed to stage a debate in the US Senate on a spurious topic of my choosing does not make me a victim of censorship; and Oxford University does not have to consider all requests to stage events of this kind. But the difference here is that the platform was revoked under pressure and threats of mass disruption.

Had the event not been cancelled, there would no doubt have been the opportunity for Ms. McIntyre and others to express their views after the discussion. Indeed, she may have discovered some points of agreement, since the two men held opposing opinions on the subject (that is what a debate is).

I can bring myself to understand why a debate about abortion between two men might rile some people but I cannot see the justification for this cancellation. If students felt uncomfortable, they should have simply not attended; if they wanted their opinion to be heard they could have rebutted any arguments put forward, either online or in their student newspaper. But nobody had the chance to make any points because of the squeamishness of a portion of Oxford students.

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