“I had nothing to say, and I got lost in the nothingness inside of me”: A brief guide to extensions

When you start out debating, speaking in extension can be terrifying. It feels like in every single round, your opening team takes all the good arguments and you’re left to stand up and give your best impression of somebody who has no idea what the shit they’re talking about. No matter how hard you try, you always end up with the judge telling you that your material was ‘derivative’, or ‘parasitic’. If you draw Closing Government, you might as well give up, right?

Wrong. (Yeah, bet you didn’t guess that was coming.)

Over the course of this article, I’ll try to elucidate the occasionally mystifying process of coming up with and delivering a winning extension. This includes looking at what to do in prep time, the different kinds of extensions you can run, how to make it look like you’re different from your opening even if you’re running very similar arguments, and how to shift the debate in such a way that you’ll leave the opening half extremely pissed (but nonetheless impressed) when the judge calls it a back half debate.

somewhere i belong

An artist’s impression

What is an extension?

At their core, extension arguments are no different to any other kind of argument. There’s no different kind of logic which applies to them, no magic bullet or special formula which denotes a winning extension argument. You need to make sure that your arguments are well-analysed, relevant and impacted in exactly the same way you do in opening half. The difference comes in what types of argument you need to run: because some of the ground in the debate will have been covered over the preceding half an hour, you need to come up with something that’s distinct (or at least looks distinct). What this ought to be is context-sensitive: the most important thing to remember in extension is to be flexible. It’s possible that you’ll have to change the line you were intending to take halfway through the debate because there’s no way you’re going to win with the arguments you’ve got. That’s okay. You can still wreck shit. You’ve got this.

Prep Time

Prep time should be reasonably relaxed when you’re in extension. You’re not looking to write your whole speech, but there are a few things you can do to really help yourself out during the debate. Broadly speaking, there are a couple of strategies.

First, a lot of people go extremely broad in extension prep time. This means brainstorming every single actor who might be affected by a motion, figuring out what the short-term and long-term impacts of the motion might be, trying to find as many possible lines as possible. From there, you go into the debate with a list of plausible lines of extension, maybe having written the bare bones of each speech, and you figure out which one is most likely to win you the debate as you go along.

I personally don’t tend to do this. I’ve found that trying to develop a large number of arguments in prep time means that I don’t actually think about anything in enough depth to be able to develop it under pressure during the round itself whilst juggling listening to speeches and writing rebuttal and the speech itself.

Instead, my recent strategy (with which I’ve had a reasonable amount of success) is to spend prep time trying to figure out what the actual core of the debate is, and then finding ways in which I can talk about which it’s unlikely my opening team will (because they haven’t had the luxury of spending that extra time thinking about it, so they’re much more likely to take the low-hanging fruit). Ultimately, this does mean that I have to think about all of the actors who are affected by the debate, and consider whether there might be a short/medium/long-term split in the impacts which are likely to accrue, but crucially it also means I go into the debate with a pretty clear idea of where I want to take my speech. Another advantage of this approach is that it maximises the amount of dialogue between you and your partner: communicating within the debate is pretty difficult, and when you’re trying to do five things at once it can be inefficient to the point of counterproductivity to have to discuss arguments with each other and decide which of a number of underdeveloped lines you’re going to take. Moreover, if you’ve already decided on a broad tack for your argument, your partner isn’t then going to be surprised when you stand up and spend seven minutes chatting about something you never mentioned in prep time, so they have to spend your speech listening and trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing rather than, you know, writing their own speech.

I recognise this is likely to be somewhat controversial, but it’s the strategy which has worked best for me for a while now. It doesn’t mean I’m inflexible: often we will end up running something which differs quite a lot from the specifics we chatted over in prep time, but it works particularly well in rooms where your opening is likely to have covered all of the arguments (at least in a shallow sense).

Why is this? Because once you’ve agreed on a particular thing you’re going to focus on, you’re free to develop that argument in great depth. That means a few things: first, you can easily identify specific bits which the opening have missed because they haven’t had time to think about it; second, you’ll never get to halfway through the DLO speech and have to tell your partner “I have nothing”; third, it opens the door to some wonderful framing work.

Framing in extension

Often the hardest part of extending is trying to show why your contribution to the debate is distinct from, and more important than, the contribution from your opening. This kind of distinction comes in the form of framing: showing that what’s happened so far in the debate is, whilst very interesting and lovely, definitely not the most important thing we should be chatting about. Instead, you have this specific thing which happens to this specific group, or this particular principle without which the debate is pretty much pointless. Obviously, you need to substantiate why this is the case, and learning to do that is mainly a matter of practice (and is highly contextually sensitive), but framing out what’s happened so far and framing in what you’re about to say is very often the key to beating opening half.

Let’s look at a grounded example. In the debate “THBT the UN should unilaterally recognise Catalonia as an independent state”, you’re in Closing Opposition. Opening half has been interesting: lots of chat about the right to self-determination, state sovereignty and the UN as an important actor. But you’ve spent a while in prep time thinking about what would actually happen under this motion, and you’ve realised you can win if you just reframe the debate. It probably doesn’t matter too much whether the people of Catalonia have the right to self-determination. Why? Because in this motion, it’s highly unlikely that the Spanish government is going to listen to the UN (given that it hasn’t listened to the Catalan people, and the UN has very little power to enforce its recognition unless it wants to send peace-keeping forces into Spain, which is a bastard of a can of worms). What happens instead? Well, you’ve just empowered separatist movements not just within Catalonia, but elsewhere in the world: because UN recognition has a great deal of symbolic importance if nothing else, it’s likely that a lot of nationalist groups elsewhere are going to be pretty antsy that they haven’t been similarly recognised. Some of the people in these groups aren’t particularly nice, and might well commit some kind of violence. Suddenly you have plausible impacts all over the world, as well as in Catalonia (it would only take one rogue separatist with an AK-47 to put people off coming on their hols to the region for ages, crashing the tourist industry). The way you’ve done this is to reframe the debate as one about practical impacts, rather than one in which principles matter much at all.

Framing is the most important tool of an extension speaker. It’s the difference between winning and losing in a huge proportion of debates. Even if your arguments are somewhat implausible, or seem a little bit irrelevant, or less impactful than those given by your opening team, you can make them seem much more important. This is great, because arguments in debates are only as important as teams make them. No matter what kind of extension you’re going for, you need to reframe the debate around it. If you’re going for a stakeholder analysis, you need to say why the impacts on that stakeholder are super important and everybody else can suck it. If you’re trying to extend on principles, you need to make it seem that the principles you’re using are (a) logically prior and/or (b) in contention within the debate. If you want to do an analysis extension about an actor who’s already been mentioned, you need to talk about exactly why your impacts on them are more important than those mentioned so far. It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to sound true.

With that said, let’s look at the different kinds of extension you can choose to run.

Stakeholder Analysis

The tried-and-tested formula for extensions, when you’re totally unsure of what else to do, is to think about exactly who is affected by a motion, pick one group, and run with it. We joke a lot about ‘the feminism extension’ because it’s such a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason: if you can prove that a motion has a significant impact on a marginalised group, you can often win debates on that basis. One of the reasons this kind of extension is attractive to newer debaters is because it seems like you don’t have to do framing, and framing is scary. There’s often an implicit assumption on the part of judges that if someone proves an impact to a vulnerable group, then that’s really important. Truth be told, it probably is important, particularly in the world at large, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to prove that importance by comparing the impacts on that group with the impacts on other groups. Arguments are only as important (in debates) as you can prove them to be. (It’s probably a good idea to remember that when judging, too.)

What does a stakeholder extension look like? Let’s say you’re in a round on the motion “THBT vegans should actively condemn and campaign against all forms of non-veganism”. The top half is likely to talk a lot about the personal effects this will have on people who are being shamed into becoming vegan, whether it’s likely to actually attract people to the vegan movement, etc. These are all reasonable arguments. You could even run a principled case from Proposition about animal rights and why vegans have an a priori duty to proselytise by whatever means necessary. So let’s say you’re Closing Opposition, and you’re trying to figure out where to go. Read the motion. Read it again. What might not have been said? Well, it says that they should condemn all forms of non-veganism. How does this affect, say, vegetarians? How does it affect people who campaign for animal welfare but aren’t vegans? People already find vegans pretty annoying: see literally any article about vegans, and the enormous number of jokes at their expense. When they start ramping up their campaigning to condemn not just meat-eaters, but anyone who cares about animal rights but doesn’t conform to an extremely strict, expensive and tricky diet, how is that going to play? For one, it’s likely going to be harder for animal welfare campaigners to separate themselves off from vegans and get the kind of step-by-step change that’s currently happening, like institutionalised Meat-Free Mondays, cheaper vegan-friendly food in supermarkets, and banning certain kinds of animal testing. It’s also likely to really piss off anyone who was considering going vegetarian before and is now being told that that’s not enough – they might as well just not bother.

In this case, you can see that picking a particular group and talking about them can yield arguments that you might not immediately think about when you first read the motion. Crucially, though, you need to prove why that group is important. Why should we care about gradual change, if the result of this motion is that loads of people convert to veganism? Why should we give a shit about the feelings of people who might stop eating animals but are still enslaving them? If you substantiate these links, you’re well on the way to showing that your arguments are the most important ones in the debate.

Impact Extensions

It’s quite common for an opening team to have left some of their claims unimpacted, or at least to have failed to impact them to the fullest extent. It’s somewhat sneaky, but totally legitimate, to take their arguments and impact them much harder than they did. Judges vary in how they look upon this: some won’t think that you can come above your opening team if your impacts are reliant on their analytical framework (they’re wrong), but others are a lot more open-minded. The key here is to show what’s been left out so far, and why it’s so important to talk about the effects you’re going to analyse. As with all impacting, it’s absolutely crucial to make sure that you maintain plausibility: gradate your impacts, moving from the most likely (and probably least harmful) through to the harder-to-reach outcomes, showing how each leads to the next. You ideally want to be able to frame your case in such a way that it looks as though what you’re saying doesn’t simply follow implicitly from your opening’s case, but requires in-depth analysis to reach.

How does this play out in the context of a debate? Let’s say you’re debating the motion “THW only imprison criminals who pose a serious and existing threat to society”. The opening half has talked a lot about the principles upon which we base the justice system, and Opening Opposition in particular have mentioned that this is likely to disproportionately affect communities which commit more blue-collar crimes, arguing that this lets richer criminals off easy and is unfair. This is probably true, but in Closing Opposition you can impact that claim. Buy-in to the justice system is incredibly important: it allows you to gather evidence, find witnesses, get tips and informants, etc. It’s incredibly difficult to run a justice system without some degree of cooperation from a local community. So when the state starts letting off the people who commit fraud, who embezzle money, who evade taxes, and continues to imprison people from your neighbourhood for drug offences and minor violent crimes, you’re probably going to be upset. This makes it even less likely that you’re going to cooperate with the justice system in any way, and a community wide omerta on talking to police is going to make it incredibly difficult to actually enforce the law.

What this extension does is take a broad claim which has been made in top half, and show the full consequences of it. It doesn’t just say ‘top half said this thing, and here’s an extra thing that might happen’; rather, it takes the analytical framework and makes it your own. There’s no way those impacts could be read into the opening case, and as such the contribution you’ve made is new and deep.

Rebuttal Extensions

Rebuttal can be your extension! Contrary to semi-popular belief, ‘having an extension’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean bringing in something constructive. It’s entirely legitimate to run a case which is purely destructive, and it’s possible to win with it. This is recommended only in instances when it’s really clear that the opposite bench is winning, or when you have absolutely nothing new in terms of constructive material and want to take a respectable second to your opening team.

The way to run this kind of extension is ideally to frame your rebuttal as substantive material, using the same kind of point headers you would normally use in a speech (mostly because some judges get arsey about speeches which are wholly rebuttal). You’ll need to make sure that what you’re trying to rebut hasn’t already been rebutted, or at least make it look as though it’s still in contention. This might involve pointing out one particular link which hasn’t been knocked down and allows an argument to go through. Then, you need to use your rebuttal to build up an alternative view of the world, counter to that given by the other team. Most speeches come down to world-building: who creates a more plausible account of what the world will look like when a motion is implemented? You’re going to want to show that not only do the benefits they claim not obtain, but that a more likely scenario is that something harmful happens instead. Alternatively, show that the benefits they claim are not benefits at all, but are in fact harms. This stops you from being purely mitigatory, which is one of the classic reasons for a rebutting team to still come under the team they’re against. Why? Because if you leave anything standing at all, then they still win, even if you prove that some of their nice stuff doesn’t happen, because you haven’t given an alternative of nice stuff happening in your world.

Rebuttal extensions are often a last resort: really, you want to be able to bring something constructive to the table as well as your destructive material. This is in part because judges are weird about it, but also because you’re going to have a really hard time beating your opening. If you’re really in a position where you have nothing new to say because your opening were so good, it’s likely that they’ve also done a pretty decent job of beating the other opening team as well, which means that you’re looking at a third place if you can beat the closing team, but it’s going to be hard to get higher.

Changing Scope

This could well be classified under framing, but it’s quite a specific (and common) strategy which deserves special mention. Opening teams will very often examine the first things that come to mind when a motion is announced. This can mean that they focus on countries they’re familiar with, or the immediate consequences of a motion. One way to extend effectively is to consider changing the scope of the debate. This might, say, moving the debate to developing nations if you’re talking about patents on pharmaceuticals. It might mean talking about what happens when children become adults if the debate is about instilling particular norms in kids. It’s critical that you make sure you justify your choice here. If you’re reaching for the long-term consequences, you’ll have to bear in mind that things further in the future are harder to predict accurately, for obvious reasons. You need to either prove that the things you say are definitely going to occur, or that there are a number of plausible options, all of which fall on your side. If you want to talk about different places, give one or two lines of analysis as to why those places are more important than the setting of the debate thus far. It’s a reasonably simple strategy.

Moral Frameworks

Again, this is essentially a reframing strategy, and it can be something of a gamble. It’s taken for granted in any debates that the moral framework in which they take place is consequentialist, and often specifically utilitarian, or “the greatest good for the greatest number”. If you prove that more people die or are sad on the other side of the house, then you win. This, however, is not the only kind of framework available, and nor is it necessarily the best. We concede that there are principles which can override utility when we say that we care more about the plight of vulnerable minorities than we do about the majority of people in a state; we do the same when we say that we wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice one person in order to use their organs to save the lives of four other people. Questioning the underlying principled assumptions of the debate so far can be a fruitful strategy.

What do you need to do? First, make sure that the principle you’re talking about is definitely in contention. If you’re in the debate about veganism mentioned earlier, and nobody on prop has talked about animal rights, it’s probably not going to be particularly useful on opp to say that veganism is premised on animal rights being a thing, and contending that they don’t exist. If nobody is going to argue with you, then there’s no point. This obviously applies equally to all arguments in a debate, but people have a tendency to run principles in this way more often than they do other kinds of arguments.

Second, you need to show that the principle you’re talking about definitely does underpin the debate as a whole. Let’s say you’re in a debate about making broadcasters show women’s and men’s football in proportion to the number of matches played. If opening half talks almost entirely about whether this would be good or bad for women’s football, their analysis is all predicated on the idea that it’s legitimate for the state to co-opt broadcasters into showing particular things, possibly at the expense of their advertising revenue. In Closing Opposition, you can contend that this is not something that the state should do, giving some kind of metric by which we judge when it is and is not okay to force broadcasters to show things. Your principle has to be logically prior to the rest of the material in the debate, or you’re going to have a bad time.

Likewise, if you want to switch from a consequentialist framework to one based on, say, rights, then you need to justify why that needs to be done. There are some well-rehearsed arguments against utilitarianism (it leads to perverse outcomes, it doesn’t reflect our moral intuitions, etc), and it’s quite easy to justify a shift in many instances. If you’re debating intervening in a particular country, and top half have talked a lot about how many people die, and it seems to be broadly a wash, then it’s possible to extend on, say, the principle of pacifism and not instrumentalising human beings. It can be hard to run these arguments in a way that makes them sound more impactful than consequentialist arguments, and often judges will (mistakenly) automatically rate them less highly, so take due caution.

How to Knife and get away with it

Okay, so you’ve got an extension. Great. Unfortunately it seems to be, on face, mutually exclusive with the material brought by your opening team. Gutted for you. What do you do?

You could just hard knife them. Say they’re wrong, this is what’s going to actually happen, and the judges should believe you. The problem is that unless it’s immediately obvious that your opening team are incorrect on some point of fact and you are correct, then you’ve pretty much just put yourself behind them (and possibly in fourth, depending on other factors). Even if they are definitely wrong, you’re going to be creating a hell of a messy debate, and the judges won’t thank you for it.

A much better strategy is to run an ‘even if’ argument. Say that you think that the opening half’s material stands, but even if it doesn’t, here’s an alternative view of what’s going to happen in the world and why it’s better on your side. This is a simple linguistic dodge which can save you a great deal of pain. The issue is that you’re still probably going to come under your opening team, unless the judges really didn’t buy their arguments.

You can strengthen your chances of coming above your opening team, though. Use the ‘even if’ argument, then  add a couple of lines of analysis as to why the state of affairs you’re describing is more likely to occur than the one described in top half. What you can do to further help yourself is to frame your potentially knife-y argument in such a way that it doesn’t seem like a knife. Let’s say you’re Closing Government on the motion “THBT the US should issue immigration visas based on merit, rather than family connections” or similar. The opening half talks an awful lot about how this is likely to bring a large influx of skilled workers into the US, and why that will strengthen their economy. You’ve come up with what you think is a really clever extension: the wording of the motion doesn’t specify that we should care about US interests, and you think that you can talk about strengthening the economies of Latin American countries. You justify this as more important in the context of their relative lack of prosperity. You say that you think that skilled workers from these countries are likely to stay home if they can no longer guarantee that they can bring their families with them. The problem is, this directly contradicts the opening half. Not a problem: just say that you think that the skilled workers they were talking about were overwhelmingly from Western Europe and North America, and are unlikely to be affected by their inability to take their families with them because they usually come over alone. Suddenly you’ve framed your knifetastic extension so that it no longer contradicts opening. Happy days.


This is obviously not an exhaustive list of the types of extension you can run. Nor, indeed, is everyone likely to agree with everything I say. Take it with an entire shaker of salt, if you wish: once you get to the point where you heavily disagree with me, you’re probably no longer at the stage where you’re going to find this helpful. In which case, write your own bloody guide and get off my back. Anyone else: I hope it helps. If you have anything you want to add, or any questions, hit me up.


“I still don’t understand what the bloody hell framing is”: an introduction to framing

Framing is probably my favourite part of debating. It’s notoriously hard to define, because when people talk about framing, they’re actually talking about a large number of different things. Ultimately though, framing is about the choices we make in language. As much as we likely to pretend that debating is a game about pure logic, it is at core a language game. The way in which we talk about things is every bit as important as the logical links which we make.

Whenever debaters receive feedback from an exasperated judge after a particularly messy round, it’s likely that feedback will contain the idea that all analysis should include an idea, followed by arguments as to why that idea is true, and why it is important in the context of the debate. When you show why your ideas are important, you’re framing. This sounds extremely abstract, so in the next few sections I’ll try to exemplify what it means to ‘do’ framing in the context of a debate.

Burden Play

At the beginning of a speech, speakers will often outline exactly what they’re trying to prove in their speech: what they think their burdens are, and what they think they don’t need to prove. This is framing.

Playing with your burdens is one of the most interesting but also technically difficult parts of framing. It starts simple: you’re talking about what you need to prove in order to win the debate. For example, on the motion “This House believes it is never legitimate to attach conditions to foreign aid”, the Opposition can attempt to claim that all they need to prove is one small set of circumstances under which it would be legitimate to attach conditions to foreign aid (for example, making aid contingent on the cessation of human rights abuses).*

This does two things. First, it allows them to narrow the debate to a class of cases that is easiest for them to win with: it’s much easier to prove that a small subset of foreign aid should have conditions than to prove that all aid should have conditions. Second, it forces the Proposition to either accept or contest this framing. They may decide to fight the debate on the ground given by the opp team, in which case they’re fighting on uneven turf because they need to try and prove that even say, human rights abuses are not a legitimate reason for conditions to be attached to aids. Alternatively, they could decide to contest the framing: they say that Opposition has unfairly narrowed the debate, and that they need to talk about a wider class of cases than just the low-hanging fruit. Ideally they’d do this by showing that the vast majority of aid doesn’t have the kinds of conditions attached that the opp team talked about, and therefore whilst it might be within the debate, it’s certainly not the most important thing in the debate.

Critically though, this still makes the Proposition’s job more difficult. They have to spend vital seconds contesting the framing given by the opp team, arguing “Opp says the world is like this, but we think it’s not actually like this, it’s more like this other thing”. Not only does that take time, but every time they have to say it they draw attention back to the contribution that the Opposition made to the debate. If this continues to happen down the table, it makes it much easier to win, because your contribution to the debate has been made continually relevant throughout the debate.

This is a simple case of burden play which shows the benefits of claiming that the debate needs to be fought on particular ground (even if it doesn’t actually end up being entirely fought on that ground). In many instances burdens will be less cut-and-dry than this: very few motions specifically use the words ‘always’ or ‘never’ in their titles, and that means it’s much harder to narrow the debate significantly whilst appearing legitimate in doing so.

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Here’s a photo of a squirrel stealing a cheeto to lighten the mood

Let’s say you’re in a debate on the motion “This House believes that parents should actively instil the value of questioning authority in their children”. This is a complex motion which has a large number of moving parts and possible outcomes. The impacts in the debate can range from “children will climb trees more and they might hurt themselves”, through “these children will grow up into adults who are less likely to get their children vaccinated and they might die of measles”, all the way up to “this will result in an anarcho-individualist society in which no institutions exist because nobody believes in or trusts them”. Depending on how the debate is framed, though, all or none of these could be debate-winning arguments.

If you’re in first Proposition, you might claim that you have two burdens in the debate. First, to prove principally that most authority is illegitimate, and so questioning or disobeying it is the morally correct thing to do. Second, to show that teaching children to disobey authority will result in those children being less likely to join in on things which hurt other children, like bullying. Here, you set yourself relatively low burdens: it’s quite easy to show that certain kinds of authority are not earned, but are merely given by default. You’re going to talk about why children are more likely to disobey the most illegitimate kinds of authority which they will recognise as having no basis in reality, and are likely to continue to listen to, say, doctors, who can prove their credentials and are legitimate authorities. You also only need to talk about children as children, rather than spending too much time talking about the long term: this narrows the debate to something which is much more winnable in 14 minutes than it might otherwise be. The way you make this seem plausible is through more framing: you say that there is a vast gap between the kinds of values which we teach children and the kinds of values which they actually end up acting upon as adults. When we teach children the value of respect, that doesn’t mean that they grow up to respect everyone all the time (though we may wish they did). Rather, it becomes one of a set of traits which balances out with all their other traits. So with authority, we say that they’re likely to grow up with a healthy disrespect of authority, but that the most important impacts happen when they’re still children, because children have quite black-and-white moral frameworks which means that if you actively instil one particular value in them, they’re likely to take to it quite strongly.

Here, the more subtle use of burdens allows you to frame the debate in such a way that you don’t have to talk about things that are going to be either disadvantageous to you or extremely complex such that they bog your speech down and you get lost.

What subtle burden play allows you to do is to convince not only the judges, but the other teams, that you only need to prove a certain number of things in order to win. Remember that there are no set criteria for what teams need to prove in order to win. That means that any claim of the burdens that a team has to take on is contestable, and it’s within your interests to claim that other teams need to prove a lot more than they might realistically be able to in order to beat you. This might come in the form of telling them they have a number of different, perhaps conflicting, burdens to prove. Alternatively, it might be that you say they need to talk about one particular group in a way that strongly advantages your side of the house. For example, in a debate about sterilising drug addicts in exchange for money, it’s in the Opposition’s interests to tell the prop teams that they need to talk about the addicts themselves, and their parenting rights, as much as possible. In contrast, the prop team will likely want to tell the opp teams they need to prove that the children of addicts are likely to live better lives on their side of the house. It’s incredibly difficult in this debate for prop to prove that this choice for drug addicts will not be coercive and that they can actually consent into it. Likewise, it’s difficult for the opp to prove that the children of addicts tend to live happy lives.

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To distract you from the hard-hitting addiction chat: a squirrel eating a stolen cookie

*It would be unwise to then go on to only prove their case in these conditions. It’s highly likely that on any panel of adjudicators there will be at least one judge who thinks this is an illegitimate narrowing of the debate and decides to penalise the team for it. The best strategy is to prove the cases you say the debate is about, then to say “even if you think this debate is about more than just these cases, here’s why we win in those other cases too”. And then prove that you win in those cases too, obviously.

Stakeholder Analysis

When you talk about different groups and how they’re affected, that’s framing. Nearly every debate will have groups who are winners, and groups who are losers. Part of the debate will revolve around arguing over which groups are winners and losers (and whether they do necessarily win or lose). However, how you talk about those groups is just as important as identifying their existence. If you care about a particular group, you want to make that group seem as large as possible, so as to maximise their impact in the debate. You also probably want to show them as a group which we ought to care about on a qualitative level, rather than just in terms of numbers. We tend to care more about groups which can’t protect themselves, or who have been subject to injustices (whether present or historical), or who are otherwise dependent upon the state or others. We also ascribe tend to ascribe traits perceived as positive to these groups: just think of the way that David Cameron constantly talked about ‘hard-working families’ during the last election.

Likewise, if you’re talking about a group you don’t care about, you want to minimise the size of this group (so that negative impacts on them are seen as less important), but you also want to talk about their qualities. Groups who are broadly well-off or able to look after themselves are often seen as less important within debates than groups with more marginalised individuals. You likely also want to ascribe negative characteristics to them.

The way you talk about the impacts a particular policy will have upon this group is crucial. Having built up a picture of a large group of people teetering on the precipice of chaos and/or obliteration, you want to show that this motion won’t just make them marginally worse off, or slightly ameliorate their situation: it is the difference between life and death. The key here is nuancing your rhetoric: if you lead straight in with ‘poor people will die, and death is bad‘, then you don’t sound convincing. If instead you paint a portrait of people who have long suffered at the hands of a state which is either neglectful or actively inimical to their needs, and who will be pushed over the precipice into despair and severe material deprivation by this particular policy, then you’re going to sound much more convincing.

One of the easiest ways of illustrating the way that framing works is in terms of debates about welfare. When we talk about benefits recipients, our choices of descriptors, and the individuals within these groups we use as representatives of the whole, are pretty important. Let’s take as an example the motion “This House would provide welfare in the form of basic goods and services, rather than cash payments”.

If you’re on proposition, it’s in your interests to portray people on welfare in a fairly negative light. You’re going to want to talk about them as fiscally irresponsible, either through ignorance or malice. You’re also going to want to try to show that as many benefits recipients as possible fall into this kind of category. It’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of people who receive benefits (at least in the UK) are actually in work, and receive tax credits. There are also parents, who receive child benefit regardless of means; elderly people receive winter fuel allowances; the chronically ill receive incapacity allowances; asylum seekers receive a small amount of money each week to live on. It’s extremely difficult (not to mention offensive and untrue) to portray all of these people as lazy benefits scroungers. However, you need to minimise the number of people who are both fiscally responsible and welfare recipients, or show that providing payments through basic goods and services is unlikely to be a large hindrance to those who fall into this category. You want to focus the debate as much as possible on the group you think this will most impact, by showing that other groups are either really small or are marginally affected at worst.

If you’re on opposition, your interests are obviously antithetical to those of the proposition. You want to talk about the hard-working people who’ve fallen foul of a perverse system of neoliberal capitalism through no fault of their own. They’re often working for employers who pay them far less than the living wage, and now they have the additional indignity of not even being trusted with choice over what to spend their minimal welfare cheques on. You’ll stress how important it is for people to have control over their own livelihood, and how demoralising it is to live under a state which not only neglects to make your employer pay you fairly (or even to ensure you’re employed at all), but which then kicks you when you’re down.

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You know what’s not demoralising? Photos of squirrels eating pilfered waffles

You’ll notice that much of the work we’re doing here is about standard analytical lines: freedom of choice, fiscal responsibility, the duties and obligations of states to their citizens, etc. What framing adds to this kind of analysis is threefold: (a) it helps you minimise/maximise the size of the groups you’re talking about; (b) it lets you show why these groups are particularly (un)important; (c) it puts emotional and rhetorical weight behind your words, letting you express big ideas in fewer words. The latter is particularly important for economy of argument: at the higher levels of debating, you want to be able to fit as much material as possible into your speech, and the only way to do this without sounding like you’re about to have some kind of minor cardiovascular event by the end of your speech is to use fewer, more carefully chosen words to create the same kinds of arguments.

Moral Frameworks

One of the things a lot of people consistently have trouble with in debates is dealing with competing moral frameworks. Perhaps because consequentialism (and particularly its utilitarian strains) is easy to cash out in terms of some kind of ‘balance of harms’, or ‘cost-benefit analysis’, a lot of debaters tend to make arguments which rarely stray far from consequentialist territory. This is unfortunate, because a lot of the most appealling arguments from an intuitive and rhetorical standpoint can be made without reference to the consequences of actions. This isn’t a presentation about how to make principled arguments, so I won’t go any deeper into the nuts and bolts of how those work, but it’s important to recognise that this is a real problem a lot of debaters face in debates. This section will deal with framing issues regarding moral frameworks. A lot of this section is likely to bleed into analysis itself, but that’s mostly a byproduct of the fact that analysis and framing really aren’t as separate as we’d like to think they are.

Sometimes, it may be very difficult – if not borderline impossible – to win a debate from a purely consequentalist perspective. Say, for example, you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to argue against torturing someone you know has information which would lead to the aversion of the deaths of a thousand people in a terrorist attack. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, you’re screwed. A thousand lives versus one life? No chance. You might stand some chance if you talk about how this might cultivate sympathy for the tortured person and cause more terrorist attacks further down the line, but it’s a gamble. You could probably also talk about the unreliability of information gained through torture (and indeed, you probably should talk about that), and the precedent this sets for torturing people in the future.

But one way you could change the terrain of the debate to your advantage is to talk about the people involved as human beings, rather than as numbers on a utilitarian spreadsheet. Using all of the above arguments as mitigation, you could then begin your speech by reframing the debate as one about rights and dignity, rather than one purely about consequences. What does this look like? First, you can show that utilitarianism often clashes with our moral intuitions on a deep level, meaning that we probably shouldn’t trust that this is the only way by which we can judge whether something is morally correct: for example, it would be the utile thing to do to remove the organs of a person in the hospital waiting room in order to save the lives of five other people, but we don’t do that, for various reasons. Second, you can start to talk about the actors involved in this debate: specifically, the person you’re torturing, and the person doing the torturing. You could start by analysing why it might be bad to instrumentalise a human being, treating them as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. We think that everyone deserves a basic level of human dignity, even those who commit the worst crimes, and we only allow state-sanctioned violence against people when those people are themselves a threat, rather than in order to obtain some other kind of end (like information). You could then go on to talk about how the kind of state that makes someone into a torturer is not one that we want to live under, and how this itself is a form of instrumentalisation, and why we have a moral imperative not to be that kind of state.

Ultimately, the legwork is done in the first few sentences. When you talk about why one moral framework (say, consequentialism) is insufficient to judge the debate and then substitute another (with reasons for it!) then you reframe the debate. This is particularly effective in the back half of a debate, when the top half has talked primarily about consequences. On the rare occasion that someone leads with a moral argument and you want to move back to consequences, the way to do this is usually with words to the effect of “when talking about morality, it’s crucial that we take into account the consequences of the actions we take, rather than living in a bizarre debate-land where the only thing that matters is whether something is morally justified, whatever that means”.


This is by no means an exhaustive guide to framing. My aim here is just to give a taste of how framing works, and the kind of circumstances in which it can be useful (always). At base, every word of your speech is framing, because framing is about world-building: talking about what’s in the debate, and what’s out of it; what’s important, and what’s marginal. Burdens, groups, and moral frameworks are just three broad ways in which you can easily work on your ability to frame. Hopefully this has been of some use – if you have any questions, hit me up.

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.

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.

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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.