The Union’s Diversity Problem

The Cambridge Union has a diversity problem. Rather, it has several diversity problems. It doesn’t have enough female speakers. It doesn’t have enough speakers of colour. It doesn’t have enough speakers from underprivileged backgrounds. It doesn’t have enough speakers from the left. I could go on, but you likely get the picture: the demographics at Union events, term after term, are skewed in favour of moderate or right-wing middle-class white men.

I’m going to talk about the Cambridge Union because that’s the one I had the privilege of being in charge of for a fleeting six months, but I would imagine that the majority of my observations are reasonably salient for the Oxford Union, or any large society which hosts speakers and/or debates on a regular basis.

The diversity problem operates in different ways for debate speakers and individual speakers, so I’ll talk about them in turn.

With regard to debates, the first problem is that there are fewer women and people of colour in positions of influence than there are men. This means that, at the base level, there are usually fewer women whom we are able to invite than there are men. Researching speakers for debates is a surprisingly difficult process – you’d be surprised how quickly you run out of names to invite for any given topic. Quick, tell me who I should invite for a debate about atheism – let me guess: Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams, Justin Welby, AC Grayling, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Tariq Ramadan, Peter Hitchens? Maybe a couple more. Any women? Maybe one or two, but they’re hardly the first names that come to mind. What if I told you that you’d be incredibly lucky if even one name on that list said yes, and you have to get six speakers, and you still personally have two or three more debates to fill? It’s hard.

Then there’s the fact that, in my experience, women are far less likely than men to say yes to an invitation. This is conjecture, but I would wager that it’s partly because women are less willing to speak in public, for reasons that can be summed up as ‘patriarchy’; it’s partly because women are less willing to engage in the adversarial activity of debating – patriarchy again; and it’s also because the women who are famous enough in any given field tend to get invited to quite a lot of stuff (because there are so few of them, and lots of places all have the same idea) and they obviously have limited time and energy and willingness to engage with snotty students.

Left wing speakers are also less likely to say yes to invitations than right wing speakers. This might sound like an odd one, but it’s not if you think about it. In 2013, Owen Jones publicly rejected his invitation to the Cambridge Union after they invited Marine Le Pen to speak – the Union is perceived as a bastion of privilege and conservatism, and the more right wing speakers who come, the harder it is to get lefties to speak. There are also fewer viable left-wing speakers, full stop – believe me, they are genuinely just really hard to find these days.

With regard to people of colour, Cambridge is an incredibly white institution, and whilst in many instances there are people of colour saying the same things on the same topics just as well as (or indeed better than) white people, one of the problems is that the majority of the people in our social network, and the majority of the people whom we think to invite, are white. The voices of non-white people in Britain tend to be, if not silenced, at least ignored or dampened in favour of white voices.

This isn’t a reflection on the committee of the Union – they’re a diverse bunch, from left to right, fairly well gender balanced (though this varies from term to term), and often with a relatively high diversity of socioeconomic and racial background. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a bunch of privileged white guys sitting in a room deciding to invite other privileged white guys to speak. The people who run the Union really care about its reputation, about its image, about the quality of events that they put on, and a large percentage of them are committed to improving the diversity of backgrounds from which speakers come. They organise events which specifically hope to attract speakers from backgrounds which aren’t white, Oxbridge-educated and male. These events almost invariably suffer from poor turnout.

The problem is, and this leads into the section on individual speakers, that the Union has a limited budget, limited time and limited student attendance. On any given night in Cambridge, there are half a dozen great events going on, and those events have to compete not only with each other but with the pulls of sport, the theatre, work and drinking. This severely limits the capacity of the Union to put on events with speakers whom they can’t guarantee will pull a crowd. In my term we hosted a large number of events like this, and the few people who came really enjoyed them, but it was time consuming and incredibly stressful – every single one was a last minute scrabble around to attempt to get people to come and make the room not look empty so that the speaker wouldn’t be embarrassed or angry. Small societies with dedicated memberships can afford to host a relatively unknown MP with an interesting idea, because they have a smaller room (I know it’s strange, but it’s a genuine factor), they often have a budget to provide food and drink to attendees because they host fewer events, they have the time to negotiate with individual speakers exactly what they want to talk about rather than just rushing to put the event logistics together, and they don’t have the reputation of the Union to live up to – when speakers come to the Union, they often see it as quite a big deal and expect a good turnout. As much as we’d love for a huge crowd to come to every single event, it just doesn’t happen, and wishing it would won’t make it happen.

When Julian Assange was invited for the second time to speak at the Cambridge Union, the argument from the Women’s Campaign was that rape survivors don’t get such a prestigious platform, and the Union should invite a rape survivor to come and speak about their experiences. The problem is that such an event would be, whilst doubtless interesting and moving and socially worthwhile, really poorly attended. Ultimately the Union committee has a responsibility to respond to the demands of its members, but it has an extremely disengaged and, dare I say it, apathetic membership. Most people don’t care about what the Union does as long as there’s at least one interesting debate each term and a headline speaker they’ve heard of. I’m not sure anything can really be done to change that – I certainly didn’t manage it.

In recent terms the Union committee have become conscious of the diversity problems and have worked hard to rectify them. The tracker used for inviting speakers has a gender column which is used to keep track of the gender ratio of speakers, and days of invitations are allocated specifically to inviting solely women. This term, the Debates Committee (responsible, oddly enough, for organising debates) spent their first three weeks inviting only women. There are regularly debates on feminist issues, now usually framed not as ‘is feminism good or bad?’, but as ‘what should we do about x issue which is relevant to feminism?’. When I was President, if there was a debate which was becoming male dominated I would attempt to make sure that the last spot/s went to female speakers, and this term there are no all-male debates and they’ve implemented the same policy as I did. It all sounds terribly like positive discrimination, and frankly it is, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud that the people running one of Cambridge’s most important institutions, a notoriously conservative one at that, are developing the social conscience required to make them (or, indeed, us) take steps to rectify the wrongs perpetuated by uneven societal power structures.

It’s not much. There are still huge problems with diversity at the Union. But there are people inside, doing their level best to change it, a little bit at a time.

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Cambridge needs to change, but the work boycott doesn’t make sense

CUSU has passed a motion to protect and support students involved in strike action in Week 5. This action consists of refusing to hand in work – not refusing to do it, just not handing it in- in order to highlight the unnecessary pressure put on Cambridge students by the current system, and to put pressure on the University authorities to introduce a reading week.

I’m not sure how it does this. Generally strike action is meant to have some kind of connection, whether it be literal or metaphorical, with the conditions being protested. Refusing to work for your employer demonstrates that their business could not function without the labour it employs, and therefore they ought to appreciate that labour a deal more. Academics refusing to mark or give lectures highlights the fact that academics do a vast amount of work for comparatively little money.

Yes, that kind of action harms students who are unable to receive lectures that they’ve paid for and which often constitute a large chunk of their contact time, or they’re delayed in receiving the marks which they’ve worked so hard for. But that’s the point of that kind of strike action – it shows just how valuable the work is, and tells the employer that current conditions are unacceptable and they deserve better.

The action proposed by CDE doesn’t do that. There will be two main groups of people harmed: first, students themselves. The majority of students will likely still do their work and hand it in, and so the minority who don’t are going to end up disadvantaged, not just because they won’t have their work marked but also because they’re still going to be doing the work. If there were some kind of symbolic significance attached to this, I could understand it, but I’m failing to see it so far.

The second group harmed are graduate students who supervise undergraduates. These students often put in a large amount of work to try and get their students through exams, and in many cases their continuing ability to get supervising work depends on their proficiency in this capacity. If their students don’t hand their work in, it makes it harder for them to do this.

The main group who are not being harmed are the University authorities – unfortunately, they happen to be the same group who hold the power to restructure term, or at least to give students a fair hearing on how Cambridge could be changed to ameliorate the situation of struggling students. This protest just doesn’t touch them. They have very little extra reason to listen – sure, some students might do worse, and that might reflect badly on the University, but in the long term, that doesn’t do much, and the University of Cambridge is one organisation that thinks very much in the long term.

The people who are commenting to the effect of ‘you have 28 weeks of holiday already, Cambridge is meant to be hard, just deal with it, the real world is much harder’ are wrong, and lacking in empathy. Yes, Cambridge is meant to be hard. That doesn’t mean we should accept conditions that normalise and encourage mental health problems in its students. I’m not convinced that this action, however, is the best way toward changing those conditions.

Finally, I’m aware that the aim of introducing a reading week or other measures is primarily to improve the lives of disabled students at Cambridge, for whom the current system is unbearable, as well as students suffering from mental illness, or symptoms which come reasonably close to mental illness. The fact that the vast majority of students will likely continue to do their work and hand it in rather than engage in the boycott is likely indicative of a large part of the problem – us. One of the major reasons that Cambridge has so many issues with mental health and pressure is that the students who come here are intensely competitive, hard-working and determined. There’s no way around that. It means that they’re unlikely to engage in any action which will undermine their own ability to do well, both here and in life. That’s why I don’t believe this action will succeed.

I totally support efforts to make Cambridge more bearable for the many people who struggle, and indeed fail, every year. I fail to see how this action in particular makes any real headway towards that goal.

Mental Health Writing in Cambridge

It seems like we talk about mental health in Cambridge quite a lot these days. Campaigns like #endweek5blues are doing a lot to raise awareness of how we as students tend to normalise worrying symptoms which could be indicative of serious problems. In 2014 especially there were a large number of articles published which gave personal accounts of what it’s like to suffer from mental illness and also be a student at Cambridge. Increasingly, authors are choosing not to remain anonymous, putting their social lives and, potentially, their future careers on the line in the name of eliminating the stigma which is still attached to discussion of mental illness.

There’s a lot of great writing being done, but some of it is incredibly difficult to find. If you google ‘Cambridge mental health’, you’ll mostly find NHS websites and resources for clinics in the Cambridge area. Unless you’re familiar with the main student papers, you likely won’t be able to find much, especially now that the Tab has made it particularly difficult to search their website.

So, I decided to take the plunge, search through the last five years’ worth of articles about mental health in Cambridge, and create a list of the most interesting, illuminating and unusual accounts, along with some comments about the articles I’ve chosen. Hopefully this can serve as a central, accessible resource for current students, potential applicants and other interested people. It’s categorised by common themes, with each section containing links to articles and some analysis of the way these subjects are written about.

1. Stress and Anxiety

Without a doubt, this is the most talked about aspect of mental health in Cambridge. Everyone knows that Cambridge is a stressful place to live, work and study, and very few people are afraid to talk about that. Some of the earliest articles I found, from all the way back in the pre-Jurassic era of 2009, talk about the stress, pressure and anxiety which Cambridge students feel on the regular.

The article ‘Too Much Stress, Too Little Time’ by Leonie James, which appeared in The Cambridge Student in late 2009, highlights how cyclical all of the Big Problems in Cambridge are: it talks about the ‘alarmingly high’ uptake rate for the University Counselling Service, the ‘complex system’ of exam warnings for students crumbling under the pressure of exam term, and the fact that degrading or switching subjects is ‘far from uncommon’. Moreover, it concludes by calling for an extra fortnight or a reading week to be added to term, ‘giving us a bit more time and a bit less pressure’. There’s a particularly great quote:

We shouldn’t have to deal with this sort of pressure right now. The stress levels of students here are, quite frankly, ridiculous for teenagers living away from home for the first time, trying to enjoy the university experience. For those who already have mental health issues time spent in this environment can and does send them over the edge. Everyone finds it hard to cope with at times, even if they hide it well.

This will probably ring true for the majority of students now, as I’m sure it did five years ago.

The call for extra time in term is interesting in light of the new campaign by the group Cambridge Defend Education to get the University to instate a reading week, stressing that ‘It would be a small step to relieve the mental illness epidemic in Cambridge. Stress and workload are major contributors to disorders; little time for rest and self-care followed by long periods of inactivity away from friends and support networks, Cambridge exacerbates existing conditions and can even lead to new ones.’

The CDE campaign, and indeed most of the very recent discussion about stress and anxiety in Cambridge, comes in response to the results of a National Student Survey which suggest that the majority of Cambridge students think their courses apply unnecessary pressure.

In our coverage of stress and anxiety, what’s most interesting is the way that it’s normalised, with many suggesting that the pressure and anxiety we feel suggest that Cambridge is ‘getting it right’. This normalisation is no more evident than in the ‘Week 5 Blues’, which for the uninitiated is the idea that halfway through Cambridge’s eight-week terms it’s not only perfectly normal but actually expected that you will feel pretty awful and not want to get out of bed or do anything but wallow in misery. It’s as shit as it sounds. There’s a really fantastic article by Martha Perotto-Wills in Varsity which calls this out for the trivialisation of serious mental health issues that it really is.

Everyone has their personal ways of coping with the stress of the Cambridge term, and this article by Raisa Ostapenko in Varsity gives a few of the ways that one student in particular copes with the pressure. There are quite a large number of articles written every term about coping with various situations in Cambridge, though the majority of them are tongue-in-cheek, and there’s certainly room for more serious suggestions about coping. Student Minds Cambridge’s recent #HeadspaceInCambridge initiative has a decent collection of coping tactics given through the now-ubiquitous medium of happy people holding up whiteboards.

2. Depression

After stress, depression is probably the most talked-about mental health problem in Cambridge. This may be in part because it’s one of the most common problems, and has comparatively less stigma attached than most conditions. Worthy of note is the fact that most writing on mental illness before around 2013 tended to be anonymous, with one exception that I was able to find: Kit Preston Bell’s account of his experiences with depression, in The Cambridge Tab. Kit’s experiences are likely to ring bells for many Cambridge students who’ve suffered from depression or depression-like symptoms: being ‘exceptionally tired’, missing nearly all his lectures because he just couldn’t get out of bed, anxiety attacks whenever he tried to force himself to get better, and eventually degrading for the year, going on to medication and then coming back to Cambridge with his depression under control. It’s an experience very similar to my own, published in early 2013, also in The Tab.

Accounts of depression in Cambridge are predominantly written by middle class white guys with supportive families, in part due to the fact that this demographic is pretty prevalent in Cambridge. We can’t ignore the fact that this might present a biased or unhelpful picture, especially for students who don’t feel able to degrade because their home is either not able to support them or is in fact part of the problem. Cambridge’s solution to student welfare issues is often to send the student home for the year, and whilst I don’t want to lapse into polemic here, we really ought to have a conversation about whether that’s always productive. Sometimes colleges can be very accommodating with respect to intermitting, allowing students to stay in college, as illustrated in this article about Whose University? by Francesca Rycraft-Moore in The Tab.

Since 2013, there’s been quite a lot of discussion of depression (and other mental illness) in Cambridge, including some helpful articles on how to talk about depression and how to help friends with depression by Michael Zacharias, as well as plays like Snap Out of It! and Grey Matters. The University Counselling Service are often quite helpful for students suffering from depression, employing CBT strategies which have been shown to be more effective in preventing relapse than the SSRIs which are often the first line of defence when students go to GPs.

There’s little discussion of the really serious aspects of depression, including self harm and suicide attempts. I thought there was an article in The Tab which dealt with the latter – albeit anonymously – but I can’t find it now for looking. On self harm, there’s very little – one of my own pieces deals with the subject, but it’s hardly definitive and I only self-harmed for a comparatively short period of under a year. It just shows that there are still some subjects which are taboo, and very few people are comfortable talking about self harm or suicide attempts openly, if at all. If anyone has any better resources on self harm by Cambridge students, it’d be interesting to read them.

3. Eating Disorders

You would expect that out of all the eating disorders, anorexia would be the most discussed. It’s a ubiquitous topic in the media, and given that many Cambridge students come from all-girls private schools where anorexia (and bulimia) are endemic, it’s highly likely that many people here suffer from it. Surprisingly, there are few articles which give personal accounts of the condition. The most prominent is Morwenna Jones’ article in The Guardian, which is written for a wider audience, as well her other material in TCS. There’s also an in-depth account by Jethro Thompson, also in TCS, of what it’s like to have anorexia and be institutionalised. In The Tab there is a great account from Simon Metin on what it was like to be an anorexic as a boy.

There is also very little material on bulimia, with an article from Liz Fraser in The Tab addressing the issue – though not talking much specifically about bulimia. James Mitchell gives a really fantastic exposition of what it’s like to be a man with bulimia, combining it with an analysis of the problems male body image has in being taken seriously as a problem, and I really can’t recommend his article enough. There is also an interesting (though quite unnecessarily verbose) analysis of coverage of eating disorders in Varsity from 2009, which talks about the dangers of glamourising them.

There is, however, quite a lot of discussion of binge eating disorder and various unclassified unhealthy relationships with food. This excellent anonymous article in The Tab entitled ‘My Problem with Food’ details the daily difficulties of attempting to negotiate disordered eating. There’s an anonymous account in Varsity of anorexia and binge eating which also deals with the process of recovery. Mollie Jones in The Tab talks about binge eating disorder, with particular reference to the stigma attached to the condition and the fact that it’s often not taken seriously. The anonymous article she references is here, though the disparaging comments are not.

4. OCD

There is very little work on OCD in Cambridge – I could only find two authors who’d written about it. There’s Vic Sautter’s column on her experience with the disorder and the follow-up article about it which addresses the stigma attached to the condition. Both of the articles are great and illuminating expositions of an often misunderstood disorder. In an article published very recently on TCS, David Roper talks about his own experiences with Obsessional OCD, explaining how it works and what it’s like to have to deal with it. I’d highly recommend all three of these articles, especially given how little decent material there is on OCD.

5. Other Conditions

There has been, so far as I can tell, no writing on schizophrenia by Cambridge students in the last five years. This isn’t particularly strange, given that the condition is relatively rare – when I ran a mental health survey a couple of years ago, only a couple of people identified as having schizophrenia. It’s also unsurprising given that schizophrenia is probably the most stigmatised of all mental illnesses, with its sufferers overwhelmingly portrayed as unhinged killers. However, this makes it doubly sad that there haven’t been any resources written on the condition in Cambridge recently. There are, of course, many other mental illnesses which are lesser known and even less covered. It would be fantastic to see some writing on living with these conditions by Cambridge students – as I’m sure you’ll agree, many of them are really great writers.

It is entirely possible that I have missed some of the great writing done on mental illness in Cambridge, and please do let me know if I have. I’m aware that I have not cited any articles from This Space, which is a webzine dedicated to mental health set up recently by Megan Dalton; however, it definitely merits a mention as there’s some really interesting stuff on there, including personal accounts, poetry and illustrations. There are also miscellaneous mental health articles and bits out there, including this video of interviews with Cambridge students by Student Minds which explores mental health issues in Cambridge. Finally, there’s this fantastic smackdown of Katie Hopkins’ bigotry about mental health issues by Amber Cowburn, who was until recently the President of Student Minds Cambridge.

I hope this is helpful to people looking for accounts of what it’s like to be both mentally ill and a Cambridge student, or just for some of the fantastic and often really moving writing done on the subject of mental illness by Cambridge students.

You may be wondering why the featured image for this post is a stuffed blue bunny. It’s because there are no good images for mental health articles. They’re all trite, clichéd or offensive. Bunnies are none of those things.

Let’s stop saying ‘Cambridge is a nice place, just suck it up’

Yesterday, The Cambridge Student printed a story on the results of the National Student Survey which suggested that 45% of students believe that their workload is unmanageable, and 62% believe that their course applies unnecessary pressure. The response from one student was that ‘Cambridge’s pressure shows we’re getting it right‘, and that ‘If we are students of the university recently billed as producing the most employable graduates on the planet, we should expect to be in a high-stress, perfection-striving [sic] environment’.

The day before, The Cambridge Tab printed another story which told students who were unhappy with the way the University sometimes treated them to ‘get a grip’, because ‘we’re hardly treated like battery hens’. Their argument was that ‘We live in the lap of luxury, in stunning surroundings, we eat our meals in banquet halls. We have what are essentially servants cleaning our rooms and looking out for us.’

This followed on from another article which argued that ‘Cambridge already nannies its students enough’, that most people have positive experiences with welfare, and that in the cases where they don’t it’s usually a result of ‘administrative incompetence rather than colleges deliberately riding roughshod over the students’ best interests.’

Today, a response was published in the Tab which argued in favour of the Whose University? campaign, calling out the other writers for ignoring the strong evidence which suggests that not everyone has a good experience, often due to insufficient welfare provisions and a lack of support for those from less privileged backgrounds. The comments disputed the article, calling the campaign a ‘laundry list of perceived slights and petty grievances’.

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If you haven’t spotted the running theme yet, it’s this: Cambridge is a nice place. It is a good university – no, a Great University. Because it is a nice place and a Great University, and in many ways it is a nicer place to go to university than many other universities, you have no right to complain. If you don’t like this – the opulence and the pressure and the 1-to-1 supervisions and the rampant perfectionism and the Harry bloody Potter halls and gowns – then go somewhere else and let someone who actually wants to be at Cambridge have your place. You ungrateful cunt.

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I agree that Cambridge is a nice place – it really is. Let’s take a moment to appreciate how pretty Cambridge is with some pretty pictures of Cambridge.

Pretty damn pretty, isn’t it?

Does this look like the kind of place that would uphold archaic power structures and put students under unnecessary amounts of pressure to you?

No? Then stop complaining

Now that’s done, let’s stop pretending that just because a place is picturesque it can’t have problems. Obviously Cambridge is a fantastic place to go to university, and we’re all incredibly fortunate to be here. We should never forget (though we likely do) that there were a vast number of equally qualified people who wanted the places that we have, and an even larger number of people who were born into circumstances which meant that for them this place was never an option, never even an unachievable dream.

But. And it’s a big but. That doesn’t mean that we should accept unfair treatment where we see it. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t call out cases where colleges and staff have engaged in bullying tactics, intimidation and emotional manipulation. It doesn’t mean that we should just suck it up when students are failed by welfare systems.

‘But the welfare systems at Cambridge are much better than those at any other university!’ goes the argument against me. That may be the case. But as TCS’ article reveals, Cambridge demands a huge amount of its students. We are unquestionably given a much larger burden of work than many of our contemporaries at other universities. The amount of time, effort, sweat and tears required to achieve a decent grade from Cambridge is incredible. Many people I know here say that they would rather have gone to another university where they could have got a first without having to sacrifice any semblance of a social life and, in many cases, a fairly large portion of their mental stability.

When an institution demands extraordinary effort and standards from its students, it must in turn be prepared to provide extraordinary support. Many students who struggle find the support structures in Cambridge incredibly helpful, and doubtless many would not have got through their degrees without them. That’s fantastic, and it’s important to report the positive stories as well as the negative ones because it shows that great support can be provided, and in many cases is provided*.

However, the test of a welfare system’s efficacy and strength is not in the cases where it has succeeded, but in those where it has failed. In my view – and I think this is reasonable – if the support structures in Cambridge are letting down a small but significant number of the most vulnerable students here, sometimes to the point where they are forced to leave and never come back, then the welfare system is not up to scratch. Those students deserve better. It doesn’t matter whether it’s because of administrative failings, or ideology, or just plain ignorance – it can get better, and we should demand that it does.

Mental health and stress are serious issues in Cambridge, as they are in universities around the country. We cannot afford to undermine the efforts of students who speak out on these issues and try to effect positive change just because Cambridge is a nice place, or because the systems here are better than elsewhere, or because many students have had a positive experience. If we are failing the most vulnerable students, we are failing full stop. That has to change.

*This is, incidentally, the mistake I made two years ago when I ran a survey on mental health for the Cambridge Tab. I was angry at a system which I felt had failed me and many others, and so in many ways I sought to prove how bad it was rather than portraying it accurately. I used the most negative stories I could in order to shock people into action, and the University called me out on it accordingly. I wasn’t in a fantastic mental state myself at the time, but I think I may have set back the cause of mental health activism in Cambridge, and for that I can only apologise.

How to get called a c*** in Cambridge

Step 1: Publish an article which is critical of drinking societies on the Cambridge Tab.

Step 2: There is no Step 2.

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These guys don’t like me very much

It’s interesting that the drinking society guys in the comments have changed their line of argument. Normally they’ll say ‘haha guess you weren’t invited’ – which I wasn’t, and for a while I used to want to be (past Tim was a questionable character). I thought I’d call that out for the bullying it was, and also because it reinforces exactly the point I was making in the article. When you start playing the ‘you’re just jealous’ game, you’re admitting that the exclusivity of drinking societies is a status thing, and nothing to do with just wanting to go out with your mates.

Now they’re trying to shut it down by saying the discussion is old, boring, etc – which is clever, and might actually work. Well done, guys.

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But at least some people are seeing right through it

Oh, and this one is particularly fun:

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