What’s it like being on antidepressants?

Note: This post contains discussion of depression, self-harm and suicide.

I went back on antidepressants just under a month ago. This is the third time I’ve been on them. When I was first diagnosed in 2012 I was put straight on venlafaxine, which is a heavy duty SNRI*. I never found it hugely helpful. It blunted my mood, making me unable to feel the kinds of highs I’m used to, and made my self-harming behaviour worse. I can’t quite remember what it did to the kinds of suicidal ideations I used to have, but I’m fairly certain it didn’t make them go away. I ended up taking myself off them. Then, in the first half of 2013, I went on citalopram, which is an SSRI and is usually more of a first-line antidepressant**. Again, it wasn’t a panacea, and I ended up taking myself off them in the summer.

Now, a solid three and a half years later, I’m back on. Why? I can’t sleep for shit. I wake up about five times a night because my brain, like some kind of bizarro headmaster tasked with planning the school day, doesn’t seem to understand that time exists in increments other than ninety minute blocks. Then, when I do wake up in the morning, I can’t get out of bed. Unless there’s something that I need to do, somewhere I need to be, I just stay there. It doesn’t matter how motivated I was the previous evening, how determined I was to launch myself into the next day screaming the lyrics to Eye of the Tiger. When I wake up, it’s genuinely like a different person has taken control of my body and won’t let me out of bed. Morning Tim doesn’t think that life is worth living. As the sort of wanker who likes to go to far-flung places and argue with strangers at the weekend, I often find myself saying ‘non-existence is utility neutral’. We usually take for granted that getting out of bed and doing the things we do is a net positive. Morning Tim doesn’t believe that’s true. He’d rather sleep forever, because unconsciousness is a blissful reprieve from having to get up and fucking live.

I thought it might just be the winter. I’ve recently moved up to Edinburgh and, whilst we’re on the same latitude as a lot of Scandinavia, we don’t seem to have nearly the same level of cultural understanding of seasonal depression and similar conditions. I thought the lack of light (and the cold and the rain and the wind and the difficulty making new friends) could be the issue, and that it would all get better when spring came.

No such luck. When I started self-harming again I knew it was probably time to go back to the doctor. He was very nice (and quite concerned when he saw the marks on my torso, because it looks a little bit like I’ve been using my stomach as a makeshift tally chart, as though I’m doing a zero-budget remake of Memento). He put me on 50mg of sertraline per day and prescribed me some zopiclone, a sleeping pill. I went back a week later and he gave me temazepam, a stronger sleeping pill, because I was still waking up in the middle of the night like a rooster with performance anxiety.

I thought that, in an attempt to navigate the thin line between useful stigma-reducing writing that helps to normalise the use of antidepressants, and cringe-inducing oversharing, I would post something about my experiences with SSRIs over the past few weeks. ‘Eight Things you Won’t BELIEVE Antidepressants do to your Mind and Body’, if you will. (‘Number seven will SHOCK you!’).

Obviously these experiences are deeply personal, and they certainly won’t reflect the myriad lived experiences of other people living with depression and other forms of mental illness. But it’s a start. If this is helpful for people who might not understand what antidepressants do or why people take them, or for people who’ve been on/are currently on them themselves, then I’ll chalk it up as a success.

1. The first weeks are difficult (who knew?)

When you first go on antidepressants, you’re often told that they may take a little time to have an effect. For some people, this two to three week wait is agonising: you’ve taken all the action you can take, and now all you can do is sit back and hope that it works – that the fog in your mind clears and that you’ll be able to function like a normal human being again.

One of the deepest frustrations of depression is the disconnect between your desires and your ability to act on them. At a really deep level, you wish you could be happy (or at least feel something other than gnawing emptiness), and you sometimes even know the kinds of action you should take if you want to be happy. But the bridge between those desires and the ability to make your mind in-the-moment act upon them is gone. It’s been burned. The hope of SSRIs is that you can start to rebuild that bridge, and that even if it’s never going to support a six-lane motorway (, either cut this comma or put another one or put another one between ‘that’ and ‘even’ to make it a subordinate clause) you might at least be able to get some foot traffic passing over it. But that rebuilding takes time, and in the meantime you’re left wondering: is what I’m experiencing right now just what I would be experiencing without the drugs? Have the drugs started working already? Am I only experiencing this because I expect to feel something?

2. Expectations are a bastard

The struggle with the placebo effect is compounded by mental illness. If you expect to feel better, and then you do feel better, it’s entirely possible to then roll back all or some of those effects if you start to think that the reason that you’re feeling better is because you expect to. It’s a circular clusterfuck of meta-expectations and reflexivity, like an entirely mental Human Centipede.

This means that it’s incredibly difficult to separate out the provenance of your feelings and any side effects you might have. This gets particularly tricky when it comes to alcohol and sex, two areas where expectations and anxieties already temper our experiences in a variety of fun and deeply frustrating ways. We’ll get on to that.

3. Bouncing back is easier

I had a bit of a setback the other day. A thing happened that would normally probably lay me low for a few days, and I possibly would have ended up hurting myself because when I’m in a state of complete melancholy, that just seems like the thing to do. As it was, I felt pretty awful, but today I’m sat in the office writing this rather than wallowing in a marinade of my own self-loathing, and I avoided treating my body like a prehistoric cave wall entirely.

One of the things I’ve noticed about antidepressants is that they put a floor under how low your feelings can go, or at the very least they elasticate those feelings: even if you go low, you end up bouncing back up far more easily than you would under ‘normal’ circumstances.

4. I’ve stopped self-harming

This is probably a big one. Of all the stigmatised aspects of depression – not seeing people, not keeping appointments, not being able to work or articulate yourself properly, being overly despondent, staying indoors or in bed all the time – there’s little on the same level as self-harm. I have vivid memories of being immediately shut off from an interview I was giving on BBC London because I wasn’t unequivocally negative about self-harm (it’s obviously not great, but it’s one of a constellation of symptoms of a deeper pain rather than being something which ought to be condemned in and of itself, and it can be a coping mechanism for people who have nothing else).

Most of my scars aren’t too bad, but there are a few situations in which people have noticed them and it’s been a bit awkward (usually for them rather than me – I’m always completely open about how they got there). Even if I’m not getting odd looks in the gym changing room, I still feel somewhat self-conscious about the marks on my abdomen which look like a small child’s attempt at Roman numerals. So the fact that I’ve managed to avoid any further encounters with razor blades is a huge plus. Here’s hoping it continues.

5. It’s totally screwed my alcohol tolerance

Now I’m not saying I’m a heavyweight, but I used to be able to, as it were, bosh a large quantity of pints and be pretty much fine. Two bottles of wine would get me pretty wankered, but I probably wouldn’t have a hangover the next day.

No longer. The week after I restarted SSRIs I went out and had a couple of pints. Lying in bed later on the room was spinning a little bit. A week later I had my first hangover in a long time.

It seems to work both ways: I get drunk more quickly, but sobering up also takes less time. Weirdly though, alcohol also just affects me differently. I’ve only got a sample size of a few occasions but on one night after consuming what wasn’t really a large amount, I just felt weird. I can’t quite place the feeling, but it just felt wrong in a way that I’m not used to.

I’ve noticed previously that alcohol is a bit of an emotional Russian Roulette when I’m on antidepressants. I’m glad that I’m now a really cheap date, but the randomness of the effects is pretty infuriating.

6. My sleep problems haven’t gone away

Sleeping pills, it turns out, might be able to knock you out for a decent period, but they can’t stop me from waking up several times a night. They also only give you a week’s supply at a time, because apparently they’re super addictive, which means that I’m now back to attempting to put my head down and snooze like a normal person. I still wake up constantly, and bizarrely my jaw seems to be clenched the whole time I’m sleeping, and it makes getting up in the morning a (H?)herculean task, because if there’s one thing Morning Tim loves, it’s an excuse to be able to make me sleep longer. “Oh what a shame you woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep last night – guess it’s time for another three hours now 🙂 🙂 :)”.

7. Sex is different

The most common side effect of antidepressants is change in sexual function, so it would probably be remiss of me not to talk about sex at least a little bit (in a further ill-advised exercise in navigating the usefulness/oversharing line).

Once again, it’s really hard to separate out the aetiology of any changes: do they come from the drugs, or my expectations of what the drugs will do? A lot of people have changes in their libido from SSRIs, but then a lot of people’s libido fluctuates naturally over time anyway. It’s not that I don’t want to have sex now, because I still do. It’s just that the desire is kind of tempered a bit, again in a way that I can’t quite articulate yet. SSRIs also make it a bit more difficult to, well, do it – in a variety of ways, but mostly they just desensitise you somewhat. This seems to be a continuation of a general theme: a lot of what antidepressants do for me is stopping me from feeling some of the worst of what I would normally feel. This sits uncomfortably with the fact that a lot of depression stems from feeling nothing at all – but that nothingness isn’t neutral. It’s an aggressive emptiness, a melancholy which yawns and threatens to swallow you whole. The drugs help negate that. If the trade-off is that they make sex different – not worse, per se, just different – then I think I’ll take it, at least for now.

8. It’s not a panacea

Whilst I certainly feel a lot better than I have been – I have relatively normal amounts of energy, my thoughts don’t drift to death and existential emptiness too much more than is natural for a philosophy student, etc – SSRIs certainly aren’t a cure-all. The techniques I learned through counselling a few years back, combined with my own ‘on-the-job’ experience of treating my own depression, have helped me a lot this time around, and without them I doubt that the drugs alone would have done a huge amount. If you’re considering going on antidepressants, probably also think about counselling if that’s an option open to you. I went through four counsellors, and none of them were exceptional, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t incredibly helpful for other people.

What’s particularly interesting is that the physical side effects of antidepressants serve to reify the mental effects. It’s often really hard to know that they’re doing anything – you just put them in your body once a day and hope, like a multivitamin or a fish oil tablet (except without the aftertaste of Satan’s belly-button lint). When you get side effects, in spite of the fact you know they might only be happening because you expect them to happen, they help you to know that the drugs are doing something. That in turn makes it easier to see the positive effects they’re having upon your mental health. And that, I hope, is mostly a good thing.

*Seratonin Noradrenaline Reuptake Inhibitor – less common than SSRIs, which are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. They do essentially the same thing, but they also hit noradrenaline. We’re not sure exactly why SSRIs work, but their mechanism of action is essentially keeping the levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter) artificially high by stopping it from being degraded in the junctions between neurones. This means that they keep stimulating electrical impulses in neurones for longer.

**I’m uncertain exactly why I was given the more heavy-duty treatment first. I think it might be in part due to the fact that I presented with reasonably serious symptoms (they balk a little bit when you start chatting suicide, who knew?), and also because I first went to the doctor in Cyprus, where I lived before I started university, and where medical practices aren’t always exactly the same as they are in the UK.


You do not have the right to ‘offend’

On the 5th March, I spoke in a debate at the Oxford Union, against the motion “This House Believes that Free Speech Always Includes the Right to Offend. We lost. Catastrophically. A full, much funnier, write up of the event is on its way, but in the meantime, here’s the rough text of the speech I gave.

I have two jokes for you. The first comes from a piece by Frankie Boyle, entitled ‘Offence and Free Speech’. It goes like this:

The thing about that paedophile ring at Westminster is that they weren’t even the worst MPs. There were people in Parliament who were to the right of MPs that STRANGLED KIDS. And they actually did more harm than paedophiles. I mean, the nonces tried to do harm in their own little way, but Thatcher fucked ALL the kids.

The second comes from a lovely website called Sickipedia, and it goes like this:

What do you say to a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you already told her twice.

Both of these jokes are offensive in the sense that they can shock, appall and cause personal upset. On the level of rights and freedoms, only one of these jokes matters.

What I’m hoping to convince you of over the next few minutes is that framing this debate in terms of ‘offence’ is an error. It is an error because it obscures the difference between the personal upset which might be caused to a person in a position of privilege by a joke, or a comment, or an insult, and the contribution to oppression and prejudice and structural inequalities which is made by comments aimed at people from groups which are marginalised in society.

First, I want to address some of the points made by Brendan O’Neill in his speech. I want to talk about the idea that any restriction on speech in the name of preventing harm, where that speech is not actively inciting violence, is somehow paternalistic or infantilising. Brendan in particular has a shtick about this. ‘Students of Britain,’ he says, ‘rise up against your censorious leaders! You’re being patronised beyond belief. You’re being infantilised. So buy the Sun, play Robin Thicke on college radio, invite the EDL to speak, talk about abortion, make sexist jokes, indulge in banter, hold debates on transgenderism, and do anything else you can to kick against the pricks who think you are babies who must be kept away from sexy or shocking or silly words.’

Two responses to this: One, no, I’m not the only one saying these things, it’s just that I’m the one who gets invited to speak about them at the Oxford Union and I wonder why that is. It’s almost as if entrenched structural privilege is a thing. Most of the people saying these things are from marginalised groups, and the free speech absolutists are, by and large, privileged white men.

Two, why is having a thick skin such an important trait to you? what is so important about being able to take insult after insult that you fetishise emotional fortitude so? why can’t you embrace the reality that some people in society are weak, they are vulnerable, they are hurt in ways that go beyond the temporary emotional by things that you say?

Let’s talk about how we have come to be in a situation where ‘offence’ is the operative word in situations where speech is discussed. How have we got to the point where any and all protests against the harmful effects of a particular speech act can be dismissed with the wave of a hand and an apocryphal Voltaire quote? How has it come to pass that we have ceded the authority to obviate any need for arbitration of speech and expression, either by ourselves or by others, to smug Stephen Fry GIFs?

A tentative answer – and those of you playing student leftie bingo, please keep any noise to a minimum – comes from neo-liberal individualism. When we’ve been told for so long that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families, we come to believe that not only is there no need for social cohesion greater than that required to facilitate the functioning of business, but also that there is no such thing as identity politics – or that, if there is, it is something pernicious, something which undermines ‘rational discourse’, something JS Mill certainly wouldn’t approve of. We’ve been led to believe that the only kind of harm that matters is individual harm, that the only offence which has any importance is individual offence, that there is no need for a politics which encompasses the very real prejudices, conscious and unconscious, historic and present, which give rise to structural oppressions in our society.

This, I put to you, is a fundamental mistake. [Only if Brendan et al say this: last time I spoke to Brendan, he quoted Martin Luther King, telling me that he wanted to live in a world in which people were judged by their character, and not by the colour of their skin]. I, too, would like to live in that world. But it is not the world we live in. You have to be intentionally looking in the wrong direction not to see the very real, everyday acts, both small and large, minor and viscerally violent, which are perpetrated against people from marginalised groups, and which perpetuate their marginalisation.

Only by recognising that oppression and harm happens on a structural level, and it is contributed to by every offensive joke, no matter if it is ‘ironic’; by every throwaway remark about rape, or domestic violence, or mental illness; by every racist cartoon and every dog-whistle xenophobic immigration panic Daily Mail article and every Unilad facebook post; only when we recognise that, can we begin to understand why ‘offence’ is not the right way to frame this debate. What to me is personally upsetting – and I’ve been called an awful lot of things in recent months – is to others actively oppressive.

Instead of focussing on ‘offence’, we should be focussing on material harm, whether that be physical or psychological – and there really isn’t that much of a distinction between them. This has all been said before, in much more eloquent terms, by Katherine Cross of Feministing. She says, ‘Being made to fear for your life is not the same as feeling hurt by speech. Losing your job as a result of stereotypes or harassment contained in speech is not the same as feeling personally offended by that speech. Being shot by the police because of ideas about your skin color transmitted through discourse is not the same as merely being offended by it. Being outed against your will is not the same as having your feelings hurt by it. It is the deeds that flow from words which concern us, and which cannot be contained by the concept of offensiveness.’

These are the kinds of material harm with which we should concern ourselves. Speaking out against these acts, which happen every single day, across the world, is a radical expression of free speech. Some people will tell you that the most important thing we can do is to listen to views we consider vile and toxic, as though inciting racial hatred or transphobia or misogyny is some kind of victory for Enlightenment values.

I think J.S. Mill would be sick to his stomach if he were alive to see the kinds of people who have appropriated his ideas today, and the ends to which they have put them. Never mind the fact that the ideal Millian arena in which good ideas will always beat the bad ideas just doesn’t exist. Never mind the rhetorical tricks and flourishes and seductive prose that awful people use to convince ordinary people to join them in hatred.

Instead of celebrating the most down-punching, prejudiced, bigoted acts of speech that can be summoned up in the name of ‘free inquiry’, we should be celebrating the up-punchers, the radicals who offend those in power, the non-conformists who refuse to be cowed by bullies who wield ‘the Enlightenment’ and ‘robust public debate’ as sticks to beat them with.

Yes, we should have freedom of speech. Yes, we should have debate, and argument, and vigorous disagreement. But we have to recognise that not all views are created equal, that you do not have a positive, protected right to hurt people, and ‘offence’ does not begin to cover the damage which our words can cause.

Let’s Talk About Recovering from Depression

Time for some good old-fashioned introspection. This is going to involve some chats about things like depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, so if that’s not your bag, it would probably be best to turn back now.

I had a piece in mind about a week ago. It was going to be a retrospective on depression. I was going to talk about how weird it is to look back on a time when I was so lonely and tired and sad that cutting my arm open with razor blades was a normal thing to do and suicide wasn’t just an abstract concept but a very real idea that passed through my mind at least once a day. I was going to do a really clever thing where I would take that alien feeling I get looking back and relate it to what it must be like for someone who has never suffered from depression to try and understand it. It was going to be a little bit emotional, but ultimately it was going to be written from a position of detachment, from a point of view where those feelings were firmly in the past.

I can’t write that piece right now. I can’t get that feeling of detachment. I feel too close to the way I felt back then, a couple of years ago, when I was Bad. If you’re reading this and you’re a friend/family member, don’t worry: I’m fine. I don’t have depression again. I haven’t cut myself for over a year and a half and I intend to maintain that streak. But for the last couple of weeks or so, I’ve been feeling some of the Bad Things again. I can’t get out of bed in the morning. I find it harder to enjoy the things I normally love. Today I broke down and cried for very little reason at all.

So instead of the piece about how hard it is to empathise with someone who’s going through depression if you’ve never been there yourself, you’re getting this instead. This is a piece about the blurred lines between feeling awful and being depressed, and how hard it can be to negotiate those lines. This is a piece about how, as someone who’s suffered from depression, it can be hard to just feel sad without worrying that you’re slipping into a depressive episode again. It’s about how the emotions you feel don’t seem to have any legitimacy anymore unless they’re framed in terms of an illness. It’s about, I think, being a recovering depressive.

The problem with mental illness is that in many cases the symptoms which characterise it are just exaggerations of normal behaviours and emotions, extremes of things that flash through our minds daily. Obviously this isn’t the case with self-harming or suicidal behaviours, but the sadness, the feelings of loneliness and anxiety and stress and despondency – all of those are things that every person feels, to varying degrees. One of the major reasons for the stigma that surrounds mental illness is that there’s often quite a fine line between just being really sad a lot of the time and being depressed, or between being careful what you eat and becoming obsessive about your diet and appearance, or between having a stressful life and chronic anxiety.

The temptation for people who’ve never been diagnosed is to dismiss themselves – and others – as people who just couldn’t have depression, because their lives are too normal, their conditions too good. Depression is for people with real problems. But that’s not how it works – depression can hit anyone. Part of the problem is that once you’ve taken on the label of someone who has depression, it’s very hard to get rid of it, both in your own mind and in the eyes of other people. It’s an illness, but it’s also something which is with you a lot of the time, which affects the way you behave and how you respond to things and what you feel, and that can make it seem like it’s part of your identity.

So when it goes away, it’s confusing. You might not have depression now, but will it come back? If it just went away for no well-defined reason – not drugs, not counselling, not therapy – then it’s hard to know whether (or indeed when) it might return. In the meantime, it’s hard to deal with negative emotions. When you were A Depressed Person, you could write off extreme sadness or the inability to get out of bed or just plain existential despair as part of The Illness, something which you shouldn’t really be feeling and which normal people don’t have to endure. But now that it’s gone, how do you deal with those times when you’re feeling down for no real reason? How do you deal with those days when your brain just won’t let you get out of bed? How do you deal with the dark times in the middle of the night when you want to go to sleep but you can’t because your mind won’t stop thinking about the future and the universe and your inevitable death and your total and utter insignificance in the grand scheme of things?

It’s a question I’m trying to answer for myself. I think part of the answer is that a little bit of the depression never really goes away, and you kind of have to accept that. You’re always going to be someone who’s susceptible to these kinds of things, who might end up depressed again. But I think part of it is due to the way that being depressed gives you a label for all of the awful things you felt, and it’s just really difficult to deal with those things when you no longer have a neat little box you can put it in. Sometimes we just feel terrible and there’s nothing we can really do about it other than watch terrible horror films on Netflix and eat tubs of ice cream. The difficulty comes in recognising that those emotions are things that humans from time to time have to feel – and you, as a recovering depressive, may have to feel them more than most.

Recovering from depression, like any mental illness, isn’t easy. There are days when I feel exhausted and hopeless and just really, achingly sad. But I think in part it’s a numbers game. The days where I’m able to do the things I want to do and I’m able to enjoy those things vastly outnumber the really bad days, and I know enough about myself now to know how to pull myself – or get others to help me – out of the murky gutters of sadness.

I’m not sure that depression ever really goes away, but it can get better. A lot better. If anyone reading this has suffered from depression or any other mental illness, I’d love to hear from you – whether it’s about recovery or the illness itself. Comment below, hit me up on twitter, whatever. Let’s chat.

The image for this article is a blue bunny because there are no images for articles on mental illness which aren’t banal or offensive. Blue bunnies are neither of those things.

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.

Blogging my Research: Steroids, Lies and Natural Limits

One of the main things I have to do this term is produce a 5000 word research paper on some topic in the History and Philosophy of Science. For those who aren’t familiar with HPS, it is, frankly, vast. Our department at Cambridge has staff and students working on everything from the history of visualising embryos to the question of whether there can be a science of human nature to the narratives of sperm. It’s a wonderfully stimulating environment, but much of the time I find myself confused and quite ignorant of the subject matter of other people’s research.

For my part, I’ve studied (though not done any research in) modern history of science, technology and medicine, metaphysics and epistemology (fancy ways of saying ‘what stuff is there in the universe?’ and ‘how can we know about that stuff?’) and the ethics and politics of science. The last of these fields is the one that I really love, and that I’m hoping to be able to do a PhD in, but even this is a huge field, encompassing far more subjects than one person could ever hope to fully study and understand in a lifetime.

Last term I did a literature review on how laypeople might be able to discriminate between experts and non-experts, or between experts who say conflicting things. It’s a real problem which faces a lot of us, a lot of the time: the news has two ‘experts’ in international relations on to talk about the latest developments in the Israel/Gaza conflict – who should we believe? You’re browsing Wikipedia and you come across a subject that you’re unfamiliar with – should you just take it at face value? It also has a lot of relevance in policy-making: if scientific experts give conflicting accounts of what the evidence says, how can politicians and bureaucrats figure out who to believe without having to become scientists themselves? In courtrooms, we specifically appoint expert witnesses on both sides of the cases, asking them to give accounts which deliberately conflict with each other – but at the end of the case, the judge or jury have to decide who is right, and they’re hardly qualified to assess forensic evidence directly.

Instead, in most of these cases we rely on indicators which don’t have much to do with the evidence itself, but with the people giving it: do they give good arguments? When their opponent challenges them, are they able to come up with a swift and unhesitating rebuttal?  Do other experts agree with them? Do they have qualifications which suggest they might be experts? Do they seem a bit slimy, a bit Nixon-ish? There are all kinds of ways in which we decide who to trust in these kinds of situations, and it turns out that most of them have very little to do with the evidence in front of us. This has implications for really important topics, from climate change denial to the possibility of imprisoning people for crimes they never committed.

That’s a little bit of what I did last term, without the really detailed stuff about different accounts of knowledge and the reasons that trusting someone’s qualifications or the agreement of other experts might not be a good idea. What I really want to talk about right now is the research that I’m working on this term. Our course says that you have to do research in at least two different areas, and because I did ethics-y, politics-y stuff last term, now I have to do something different. One of my main hobbies is going to the gym, picking heavy things up and putting them down again. It’s something that I do most days of the week, and I’ve been doing it on and off for quite a while – though you probably wouldn’t know it to look at me. When you get involved in a hobby, you inevitably end up reading about it a bit, and so I’ve spent some time lurking on fitness forums and reading around the topic of weightlifting.

There are a few things I’ve noticed through this reading. One, a lot of people lift weights. Like, a lot a lot. It’s probably one of the most common things for young men, particularly at university, to do. There’s an interesting (though fundamentally flawed and quite classist) article on Vice which touches on the gym culture in modern Britain, and it does seem self-evident that there are more people going to the gym than ever before. Second, steroid use is widespread. It’s much more common than you’d ever think, especially at the upper levels of bodybuilding and weightlifting. All of the men with incredible bodies you see on the covers of Men’s Fitness?


Yeah, steroids. Steroids combined with an awful lot of hard work and likely a strict diet, but steroids nonetheless. One of the biggest cons in the fitness industry (and it is an industry) today is to sell men the idea that they can achieve naturally (and quickly) what can usually only be achieved with steroids, or at least many years of lifting.

Third, and this is the real problem – people lie about steroid use. There are massive disincentives to admit to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. One, they’re prescription-only, and much of their use is at least nominally illegal. Two, they’re illegal in nearly every kind of athletic competition, but there are a lot of ways of getting around drug tests. Three, a lot of the elite bodybuilders and fitness models rely on sponsorship from supplement companies and other businesses in the fitness industry for their income, and steroid use doesn’t sell. These companies want men to believe that these bodies are achievable without the use of drugs, without having to inject testosterone or dianabol into yourself every day for eight weeks at a time, with the minimum of effort and discipline and, most of all, with the use of the particular fat-burning/muscle-building drug that they’re selling.


It is nearly totally impossible to achieve the kind of physique in the picture above without the use of performance enhancing drugs. But bodybuilders either refuse to admit to steroid use, or just outright lie about it – this guy for example:


This guy, Kali Muscle, claims that all you need to get as big and strong as him is Pepsi and Instant Coffee.

Given that it’s really easy to beat drug tests in competitions, and given that large numbers of strength and physique athletes make false claims to being ‘natural’ – to not using steroids – how can we tell whether they’ve actually used performance enhancing drugs?

The short answer is we can’t – not definitively, not in every case. But there is what many consider a good indicator, and this is where my substantive research starts to come in.

BMI, as you likely know, stands for ‘Body-Mass Index’, which attempts to give figures for a ‘healthy’ weight based upon a calculation of your weight in kilograms divided by your height in metres squared. Doing this with various people at different heights and weights creates a graph like this:


This index attempts to classify people’s bodies as ‘underweight’, ‘normal’, ‘overweight’, ‘obese’, and ‘morbidly obese’. It was devised by Adolphe Quetelet in an attempt to measure the health of populations, and it was never intended to be used as a diagnostic tool for individuals. However, it is used for this purpose – or at least, for telling people that they may be at increased risk of developing certain conditions.

BMI is notoriously inaccurate for athletes. Muscle is denser than fat, and it is perfectly possible for an athlete to develop enough muscle that they are considered overweight, or even obese, on the BMI scale. This means that the scale simply doesn’t work for them as a diagnostic indicator. It fails to take account of the difference between muscle and fat.

Enter FFMI. FFMI stands for Fat-Free Mass Index, and it’s calculated by taking the lean body mass of an individual – that’s all of their mass, excluding fat – and dividing it by their height in metres squared. For maximum accuracy, this is then manipulated slightly to reflect the average height of a man at 1.80m and the fact that there’s a slight positive slope on the lean body mass of individuals as they get taller due to the fact that they also tend to get wider and thicker. This index was first devised in 1990, and was intended to be used to establish the nutritional status of individuals. However, in 1995 a paper was published which compared FFMI in users and non-users of anabolic-androgenic steroids. The findings were particularly interesting: they suggest that there is a ‘natural limit’ at around 25.0 on the FFMI for non-users of steroids, and that figures above this strongly indicate that a person may be using, or have used at some point, steroids.

My research is about how this index came into existence, and how it came to be used to construct the concept of a ‘natural limit’ to the muscularity of the body which is used to police the boundaries between steroid users and non-users, as well as how this limit is negotiated and pushed by people working in the fitness industry now. The idea that there is a limit to what can be accomplished naturally with a human body is fascinating, and there are many other areas in which these kinds of limits have been constructed and imposed – in the ratio of testosterone to epistestosterone as an indicator of steroid-use, in the negotiation of the hormonal and chromosomal boundaries between sexes in sex tests, in the creation of diagnostic criteria for gigantism and dwarfism, and in countless other instances within medicine. It’s a fascinating area, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to try to contribute to it – and to share the results.

What is a Platform?

No Platform for Fascism. No Platform for Rape Apologists. No Platform for Transphobes.

It’s hard to go more than a few weeks now without someone, somewhere, suggesting that somebody shouldn’t be given a platform. The result is always the same: article after article after article talking about how awful the No Platform policy is and how censorious liberals have become and how freedom of speech itself is under threat.

But what does ‘No Platform’ really mean? What even is a platform? The familiar mantra for those of us involved in these debates is that ‘free speech isn’t the same as privileged speech’ – but what does that mean? It’s a debate which is full of loaded, ambiguous terms. Even the term ‘free speech’ has a vast number of connotations, with far too many arguments revolving around different conceptions of free speech, opposing points passing each other like ships in the night.

No Platform protests in Cambridge against Dominique Strauss Khan

An argument usually invoked in favour of No Platform policies and protests is that there’s a difference between ‘free speech’ and ‘privileged speech’, but what do we mean by that?

I’ve been thinking about the free speech problem for quite a while, and the way I’ve begun to explain it in the soft, squishy, private domain of my mind is in terms of what I call ‘Platform Theory’. I’m all but certain that somewhere in the canon of political philosophy there is an incredibly intelligent person (probably an Ancient Greek) who has articulated what I’m about to say before me, more lucidly, and under a better heading, but I can’t find it for the life of me, so this is my take on how speech is cashed out in a liberal democracy. It plays upon social contract themes of rights and responsibilities, and I think it’s a reasonable framework to analyse the costs and benefits of platforming particular speakers, with particular views, in particular places. Here goes.

What is a platform? (And so can you!)

A platform is a capacity someone has, either as a person or as an institution, to amplify and/or legitimise the speech and/or views of another person or institution. It sounds messy, but it can be explained fairly simply through some examples.

Recently the New York Times published an op-ed by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant on ‘Speaking While Female’. The New York Times has a daily circulation of 1.8 million. by publishing this piece, they gave an unopposed platform to Sandberg and Grant, through which they reached at least 1.8 million people. In this case, their voices are both amplified – because they could not reach that many people simply by writing the post and then sticking it up on the wall in their bedroom – and legitimised – because the piece was provided without any kind of rebuttal or ‘balance’. This isn’t intended as a criticism – that is what an op-ed does.

So far, so simple. None of this is particularly controversial – we all know that newspapers have a particular editorial slant, and that they give their columnists both audience and legitimacy. That’s part of the point of the press.

If I have 1000 followers on Twitter and I retweet someone’s opinion about, say, the merits of the man-bun*, along with some kind of agreement, or without any kind of rebuttal, then similarly I amplify and legitimise their view. On average someone with 1000 followers will probably have each tweet seen by about 100-200 people. They’re less capable of amplifying than the New York Times, but they’re still providing a platform to somebody else’s view. If I tweet some kind of affirmation of the view along with the retweet, I legitimise more than I do simply by retweeting it – assuming my followers broadly believe me to be a reliable source of information or decent opinions, they’re more likely to believe something I retweet to be true if I add my explicit endorsement to it. I give that view a platform, and I lend it legitimacy. I am a platform. You can be a platform, too. Below is an example of giving a platform to a (horrible) view without endorsing it.

None of this is very contentious. What about situations in which a view won’t necessarily go unchallenged when someone amplifies it? For example, the BBC commits itself to ‘balance’ when portraying controversial issues, attempting to bring in commentators on both ‘sides’ of an issue wherever possible. They give those commentators a platform, amplifying their views, but they don’t necessarily legitimise those views – or at least, they don’t legitimise one of the views over the other. Of course, they do legitimise both those sets of views – Today on Radio 4 has over 7 million listeners per week, and for many of them the two (or maybe three or four) views presented on an issue will be the only, or at least the bulk, of the material that they hear on any particular issue. That means that the BBC platforms two contrasting views and presents them as a dichotomy. Whilst this can produce a decent discourse, and obviously the intelligent viewer is able to make their mind up for themselves, choosing to platform those particular people necessarily limits the scope of the discussion. The BBC may not endorse a particular view, but they do legitimise the views of the people they have on by virtue of exposing them to an audience of millions. It is possible to legitimise a person without endorsing their views.

The Case of Marine le Pen at the Cambridge Union

This last argument doesn’t seem particularly controversial, but it’s at the heart of the No Platform movement. When the Cambridge Union Society hosted Marine le Pen in 2013, there was a protest from Unite Against Fascism and assorted student campaigners. Owen Jones publicly rejected his invitation to speak at the Union in protest at the decision to invite her – to give her the Union as a platform. The argument against the No Platformers was that the Union doesn’t endorse the views of any of its speakers – indeed, the Union’s members are given the assurance that they will be able to question and engage with them, particularly if they are controversial.

Protesters at Cambridge against Marine Le Pen

This is an interesting case in platform theory. The Union amplified le Pen, but not in any significant way: she had already achieved 18% of the vote in the French national elections, and so even if the Union had an audience of thousands rather than the ~500 that it can fit into its chamber, the amplification would be negligible. So any damage which could conceivably be dealt through platforming her would have to be done through legitimisation. The Union claim not to endorse the views of their speakers – and I can confirm that, having run the Union for a time, this is definitely the case. But as I argued above, they don’t have to endorse their views in order to legitimise them. In this case, they’re not legitimised by virtue of the number of people they reach, or because platforming them necessarily excludes other viewpoints.

Their views are legitimised for two reasons. First, the Cambridge Union and other institutions like it – the Oxford Union, the BBC, the pages of national newspapers like the Daily Telegraph and The Times and The Guardian – have prestige attached to them. It is a privilege to be invited to speak at, or write for, these places. The website of Le Front National has an article about her ‘success’ speaking at Cambridge. No matter how robustly she was challenged, the take-away for members of the public who weren’t present was that Marine le Pen was invited to speak the University of Cambridge in front of some of the brightest young minds in the world.

The second reason that inviting a controversial person to speak at the Union legitimises them as a figure, without endorsing their views, is that there is a massive power differential between the invited speaker and the audience. This was the case with le Pen, it was the case with Dominique Strauss Khan, and it will be the case this term with Moazzam Begg and Germaine Greer. When I was President, we had the Israeli Ambassador, Daniel Taub, come to speak, and despite my best efforts, this power relationship remained. The mechanics of speaker events like this make it impossible for there to be completely robust challenges from the audience. The speaker is a guest in the space – you have to be nice to people if you’re hoping to get them to come and speak to your society for free – and so it’s very difficult to moderate effectively. They’ll often speak for much longer than you’d like, students won’t necessarily ask the hardest questions – often because the audience is likely to be composed of people who are broadly sympathetic enough to the speaker to want to spend their evening listening to them – and it’s generally just very hard to end up with a speaker being ‘challenged’ in the way that you’d ideally hope for. The end result is that their views go unchallenged to a degree, and that means that they’re at least partly legitimised by their visit. Note that this means that not only does platforming them legitimise them as a person worthy of the honour, but also it legitimises their views, especially if they are giving a talk on a particular subject.

Moazzam Begg is one person being given a platform at the Cambridge Union this term

We are all platforms

This has been a brief introduction to one aspect of what I call platform theory, and what I’m sure somebody cleverer than me has called something wittier and more apt. I’ve covered what it means to give somebody a platform: from amplification, to legitimisation, to outright endorsement. Obviously I haven’t covered all possible instances of platforming, but this should be enough of an introduction for people to send me hate-mail on Twitter. In future posts, I hope to work on the rights and responsibilities we have in choosing to platform particular people and particular views, as well as situating platform theory within the context of broader debates about freedom of speech and expression, and the tradeoffs we may have to make between those rights and other values which we hold dear as a society.

*The man-bun has no merits.