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.


Why Free Speech isn’t absolute and it’s okay to be vulnerable

I don’t really mind if you read this, it’s mainly for my own peace of mind following an interesting week. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite so many people send me hate over the internet – I’ve been called everything from a ‘bell’ and a ‘dickhead’ to ‘moronic’ and a ‘patronising snob’, I’ve had an article in a student newspaper call for my expulsion, and the better half of a hundred copies of The Spectator sent to my work address, sporting a cover story on the ‘new enemies of free speech’. If I’m honest, I’ve mostly found it all quite amusing – I think there was only one point at which the whole thing got a little too much and started to upset me, but I started learning a while ago that you just can’t take anonymous comments too seriously.


Just some of my delighted readers

What happened?

So I thought I’d recap what happened, and then chat a bit about where I think we went wrong. This week there was going to be a debate in Christ Church, Oxford. For those unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of Oxbridge, they are collegiate universities – that is, when you go to study there, you are put into a college, which is where you eat, sleep, socialise, have pastoral and academic support etc. The debate was to be run by an organisation called Oxford Students for Life (OSFL), and the motion was ‘This House believes Britain’s abortion culture hurts us all’. There were two speakers, Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill, both quite prominent journalists.

When the JCR (Junior Combination Room – essentially the elected representatives of the student body of a college) got wind of the event, they lobbied the college to reconsider holding it, on the basis of the threat to the emotional and mental wellbeing and safety of the students of the college. A couple of other groups in Oxford, including an ad hoc event set up entitled ‘What the fuck is ‘Abortion Culture’?’, said they would turn up and protest. The college decided that there was not enough time to adequately address the safety concerns, and therefore decided the event would not go ahead in their premises. OSFL attempted and failed to find another venue at short notice, and so the debate did not happen.

Ironically enough, this was, on the college’s end, nothing to do with protecting student welfare. The reason they didn’t allow the debate to go ahead was, I was informed last night by a Christ Church student, because the college requires rooms to be booked three days in advance, and OSFL left it until two days before their debate to do it, meaning that what was seen as an excuse – ‘not enough time to address safety concerns’ – was actually college bureaucracy in action. In her article for the Independent, Niamh McIntyre gives a better explanation of this.


Regardless of exactly why the college shut it down, the result was that both Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill were very unhappy. Tim published an article in the Telegraph saying that ‘Free speech is under assault on campus’, and Brendan O’Neill wrote a leader article for The Spectator called ‘The Stepford Students’, which referred to his opposers as ‘the new enemies of free speech’. A number of people, myself included, noted the irony in their claim that their free speech was being suppressed coming from articles in the national press. Neither Tim nor Brendan appeared to appreciate the joke.

My role in this little fracas came in two parts: first a twitter spat, then an article. Beware when clicking the first link – reading the entirety of a twitter argument can be both incredibly time-consuming and harmful to your sanity. Essentially I tweeted some criticism of Tim Stanley’s article, and then various people got upset at this because I’m currently the President of the Cambridge Union, a debating society which has the slogan ‘promoting free speech and the art of debating’.

As a person in this position, the argument went, I ought to believe in absolute freedom of speech, and not try to shut down any kind of debate. To me this seemed interesting and possibly counterintuitive – I think that a person in my position has to think critically about what exactly free speech consists in within any given circumstance, and what it really means to give somebody a platform, either as an individual or in a debate. Over the course of the two-or-so years I’ve spent working at the Union, I’ve thought an awful lot about our role in facilitating debate, in running events which are controversial enough that people want to come but without being irresponsible in their subject matter, their framing or the speakers invited. As a society with limited resources – time, money, and most importantly student attendance – we have to consider carefully what debates we’re going to hold each term, who we’re going to invite to them, and how we want to run them.

photo (3)

Someone I’d just met made me an origami squirrel out of the front page of the Spectator, because some people are just great

My article essentially ran along these lines. I said that there are some limits to freedom of speech, without prescribing what they are in any given instance, but listing five factors which need to be taken into account and weighed up when setting up any kind of debate: what might be said, who is speaking, where it takes place, what the subject is and how it’s framed.

This, to me, didn’t seem particularly controversial. I also suggested why it might have been that people had objections to the proposed OSFL debate, based on the criteria listed above: there were only two speakers, neither of whom had ever been in possession of a uterus; the debate was taking place in a college which is also home to people who may have had abortions and aren’t particularly comfortable with the idea of this debate going on in their home; and the framing of the motion wasn’t particularly good, assuming the existence of an ‘abortion culture’. Some people also had a problem with the debate being hosted by a pro-life society.

Again, none of this seemed particularly contentious, but the response was remarkable. If you go into the comments on the Tab article, they are overwhelmingly negative. A lot of people suggested that I didn’t want debates to go ahead if they could offend anyone, or that I was shutting down freedom of speech, or telling people what they can or can’t listen to. I don’t think I was doing any of this. Ultimately I agree with the decision not to host that particular debate in that particular context, but I don’t think any of the criteria I laid out were unfair. Every debate we hold isn’t just an expression of ideas – what is ‘just a debate’ to some people is something which has a very real impact on the lives of others. We don’t just say things in a vacuum, there are very real social contexts and impacts which we ought to take into account when we set up debates.


Where we went wrong

I think we made a tactical error in this whole situation. When Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley published their articles, they framed what had happened as a prioritisation of ‘feelings’ over free speech, what they consider to be a fundamental right. We let them frame it this way, and the entire discussion took place on their terms, where we were the brutal oppressors of the new liberal orthodoxy, the foaming-at-the-mouth PC brigade who want to shut down debate and never let anyone be offended by anything.

It’s not about free speech. That was where we went wrong. This whole thing is not in the slightest bit about free speech – that is, the right to say things without fear of the state shutting you down. Freedom of speech is just a legal right, and when you invoke it – to paraphrase xkcd – you’re saying that the most compelling thing that can be said for your position or debate is it’s not literally illegal to say or hold it. There are two things that we are actually talking about here – or rather, which we should be talking about.

The first is what it means to privilege a particular person’s speech. When we give someone a platform, particularly at a prestigious institution like Oxford or Cambridge, we lend a degree of legitimacy to their point of view. Whilst this may not matter if, for example, you’re a high-ranking politician who is legitimised by elections they have won, it does matter for other people. There are an awful lot of people who would love to take part in the debates we hold, but we choose not to invite them to speak for numerous reasons: they’re not an expert with the requisite experience, they don’t have anything particularly interesting to say, or sometimes they just have horrifically offensive opinions which we don’t want to give the privilege of a platform to.

A number of people over the past week have recommended I ‘read J.S. Mill’s On Liberty’, in order to rectify my views. What they’re thinking of when they say this is an idealised Millian arena, in which all opinions can be presented and challenged, and the bad ones will be refuted and the good ones accepted. The problem is that this arena doesn’t exist. Sometimes the people with the ‘good’ opinions aren’t very good at expressing them. Sometimes people use tricks of rhetoric to get an audience to support their otherwise heinous views.

Moreover, debates can have greater capacity to do harm than good. First, there’s the problem of political asymmetry: if, for example, we hold a debate about the repatriation of immigrants, then there is a greater capacity for harm to occur to sometimes vulnerable immigrants if the debate goes against them than there is for any benefit to accrue if the debate goes the other way. It’s far more likely, for example, that the Daily Mail will publish an article entitled ‘Cambridge students think we should send them back’ with the former result than that they will publish anything at all with the latter. Debates like this can play into already existing biases about particular groups of people, often vulnerable people, which the audience hold, in order to make it even harder for them to achieve equal status.


Fake info slide put up before the final of the Cambridge Intervarsity Debating Competition – they asked me if I was ok with it first, because caring about feelings is a Good Thing

The Liberal Orthodoxy

The second thing this argument should actually be about is the ‘orthodoxy’, and power, and privilege, and oppression. When Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley get to claim, from the pages of national media outlets, that they are being oppressed and their free speech squashed by the new liberal orthodoxy of students, we know something is wrong. They are the orthodoxy. What students do best is to challenge the firmly held beliefs of the generation above them, and that is exactly what we are doing. We are challenging the notion that debates happening in formal contexts have no ramifications past the end of the evening. We are challenging the claims of privileged men to have the right to speak wherever they want, whenever they want, on whatever topic they want.

Finally, we are challenging the idea that all weakness is bad. Brendan O’Neill in particular despises weakness. He is absolutely right that quite a lot of students now want the right to feel comfortable, but he is totally wrong when he says this like it’s a bad thing. Absolutely we should feel comfortable in the places we live and study, in the places we have made our homes. There are some students who are more vulnerable than others, for a whole host of reasons: they may have had emotionally traumatic experiences, they may be suffering from mental illness, they may be from backgrounds which don’t have the privilege of sending people to top universities regularly, they may just be fragile – but that’s okay. We, as students, are beginning to realise that there is more to life than just discussion. We’re beginning to realise that we don’t need to be ashamed of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We’re beginning to realise that sometimes we have to prioritise the emotional, mental and physical wellbeing of our friends and colleagues over the ability of privileged people to come in to our homes and say whatever they like.

If that makes me an enemy of free speech, so be it.