The Case For and Against Abolishing the Oxford Union
Leon Wheeler argues in favour of Abolition, while Matthew Oulton defends its "free speech" credentials
Leon Wheeler and Matthew Oulton
A Case for Abolishing the Union – Leon Wheeler
In recent weeks the status of the Oxford Union as an entity attached to our university has once again become a point of focus in the wonderful arena of discussion and debate that is Oxfess. Given the very nature of the Union as an organisation steeped in a history of elitism, this is to be expected. And yet again, just like every time the question of the Union gets raised, I am forced to conclude that it must be abolished. In this article I will set out some of the reasons (of many) for why the Oxford Union should be abolished. I’ll also tentatively suggest some ways in which this may be achieved.
One of the first problems about the Union that arises is that when a student first gets to Oxford, or even just first hears about Oxford University, they are confronted by the Union. In many cases this is a result of the numerous articles about the Union that are published in the national newspapers detailing the latest controversy to have rocked it. In others, it’s by being immediately ambushed by people hoping to convert you into hackers or extract the hefty membership fee from you. The issue with this is that because it’s so noticeable it creates a bad reputation for the university, which affects us all, regardless of whether we are members of the Union or not. When the headlines that come up if you search up Oxford University are all about rumours of nepotism, bullying, or discrimination that have taken place at the Union, everyone who goes to or has gone to Oxford has their reputation and university tarnished.
The issue with this is that because it’s so noticeable it creates a bad reputation for the university, which affects us all, regardless of whether we are members of the Union or not.
A large amount of these negative stories about the Union arise due to the fact that the termly election cycle of the Union means that no one can truly implement any lasting change – as all but the President are constantly getting ready to run in the next election whilst they hold committee positions. This results in a situation where those who rise to the top are the individuals who are prepared to descend into Machiavellian politics – backstabbing, rumour spreading, and intimidation. Meaning that many of those who then become President are the best at playing this game in pursuit of power and so have no will to reform the system they themselves have flourished in. And even when the President does have a will for reform this is often blocked by those who are still striving to climb up the ladder. We can therefore expect the negative rumours and tales to continue leaking from the Union into both the university psyche and the student and national newspapers, as no change is ever going to be effectively implemented.
Furthermore, the fact that it’s the Union that is notorious means that there is a high degree of confusion between the Oxford Union and the Oxford Student Union. When I first arrived at Oxford, innocent as Bambi and equally doe eyed, I had no clue what the Union was. When told about it my initial assumption was that it was Oxford’s SU, and that I was therefore being asked to pay over £200 just to be a member of the organisation meant to be representing me.
…those who rise to the top are the individuals who are prepared to descend into Machiavellian politics – backstabbing, rumour spreading, and intimidation.
Although I soon corrected my mistaken assumption, there are still plenty of members of the university who don’t engage enough with either organisation in order to know the difference. So, when they hear that the Union has had a blind man escorted from its premises for merely sitting down they think that their SU is prejudiced, and when they hear that the SU has acted in relation to lecture recordings they assume the Union has just made recordings of their speakers more readily available. This is a state of confusion that benefits the Union by distracting people who might otherwise be opposed to it and harms the SU by tarring it with the brush of Union scandals whilst diminishing the achievements it makes for the student body. As such, the abolishment of the Union would be nothing but beneficial for the SU, and therefore for Oxford University students.
A further issue surrounding both the SU and the Union is what I like to label ‘the Union-SU Pipeline’. As I pointed out earlier, the type of people who rise to the top of the Union are those who are prepared to play the political game in the dirtiest fashion and who have no issue with engaging in nepotism and bullying. Often these individuals find themselves attempting to engage in the SU and bringing these Machiavellian traits with them. This can result in either Union style hacking and other election techniques being employed in the SU elections or in SU sabbatical officers who are heavily involved in the Union attempting to run for roles in the Union whilst in their sabbatical post. Despite the fact that this then becomes their focus rather than the job they’re being paid to do on behalf of the university’s students – something that previous SU Presidents have done. Yet again we can see how the Union, and its intersection with the SU – is bad for the university as a whole.
A final reason I will address for why we should abolish the Oxford Union is that when you arrive at this university the Union is often advertised as a grand institution that you absolutely need to be a member of. Reasons for the desirability of this membership are supposedly the extensive list of speaker events and debates that are run. This, combined with the fact that the Union offers a discount for freshers during the first few weeks of the academic year, often leads to new students splurging what is a significant amount of money for most on a membership.
Unfortunately, some who do so live to regret this. Unless you actively engage in the political, election side of the Union most people do not see an effective return on their investment – as the high workload of an Oxford term means that many rarely go to any of the events that are being run. Furthermore, the negative reputation often dissuades those who do have the time from going anyway. Due to this many freshers are conned into shelling out a load of money for a society they will rarely interact with. For those who do get engaged with the politics of the union, they may see a return for their money, but too often this is accompanied with a shedload of mental health concerns, toxicity, and stress.
So, what can be done about this? Well one step in the right direction would be for colleges to deny the Union the ability and right to advertise in their college freshers fairs – this would not only prevent new students from being scammed but would also deny the Union the vital funds it needs to continue operating (new membership fees is one of the few ways in which the Union remains financially afloat). Another would be for colleges to ban the advertising of Union events and of hacking messages in college community Facebook groups and pages. Although even both of these if implemented across all Oxford colleges would most likely not achieve the death of the Union it would still be a start.
Free Speech and the Oxford Union – Matthew Oulton
When it’s not preceded by the phrase ‘buy-one-get-one,’ the word ‘free’ should always be regarded with suspicion. From free lunches to free markets, branding something you agree with as ‘free’, and thus implicitly denigrating the alternative, is one sure-fire way to lend the appearance of strength to an otherwise weak argument. The problem with characterising something as ‘free’ is that it implies a value judgement – that the ‘free’ thing is good – without making that judgement explicit.
The term ‘free speech,’ then, is the pinnacle example. Nobody (or, at least, almost nobody) believes in unmitigated free speech, but all too often people will say that they do. In no country on earth, for example, can you stand up in a court of law, admit to committing a crime, and then claim that you cannot be convicted because you were merely exercising your freedom of speech. The label ‘free speech’ is generally a way to present something you want to say as being above reproach, even when it is not.
Nobody (or, at least, almost nobody) believes in unmitigated free speech, but all too often people will say that they do.
So rather than trying to label some speech as unimpeachably free and above debate, we should think of speech more similarly to how we might consider other potentially damaging behaviour. Your right to speech should be afforded the same protection as all your other rights. It should conform to the Mills’ ‘harm principle’ – you should be free to speak as you wish so long as you do not harm other people.
What kind of harm can speech do? Speech can obviously be incredibly harmful. It varies from the clichéd example of ‘yelling “fire” in a burning building’, to the less tangible harm done when someone insults you, criticises you, or, in the extreme, abuses or defrauds you. To offer protection to all of these, then, is clearly absurd – ‘free speech’ should not mean the freedom to conduct a pyramid scheme.
However, to regulate all of these is also fraught. You do harm if you lie to your partner, if you insult a stranger, or if, after a few too many drinks, you are too honest with your friends. The reason we do not, and must not, prevent this sort of behaviour is that censorship also imposes a deep moral harm: silence. To prevent someone from speaking their mind is a very powerful thing.
Your freedom to speak freely, then, should come as an extension of your right to think freely. As a result, where censorship would have the most utility – preventing people who believe harmful things from sharing them – can never be allowed. If someone is a racist, they must be allowed to share their racism. You can use your own speech to try to dissuade them, and indeed you have a moral responsibility to prevent them from spreading their vile ideas through their own speech, but you cannot prevent them from speaking.
Abuse is different, of course. The right to explain your views to people, no matter how reprehensible those views are, does not extend to the offering of abuse. The reason for this is simple – being able to attend a BNP meeting and express reprehensible views is necessary to preserve people’s intellectual and moral self-determination. Being able to yell slurs in the street is not.
It has become common to try to define freedom of speech merely as the freedom from state influence – a corrupting artefact of the protection offered by the First Amendment in the USA. But such protection is incomplete.
If you can’t be arrested for reporting sexual assault, for example, but your employer can and will blacklist you, you are not really free to express your view on it.
Likewise, if it is legal to be a member of the Communist Party, the British National Party, or even the Labour Party, but to be registered with any renders you utterly unemployable, you might as well legally proscribe the organisations. Freedom of thought, then, requires both legal and social protection.
This creates difficult-to-resolve ethical tensions. Where is the line between the requirement to allow people their right to their views and the tolerance of the intolerable?
Again, the line is blurred, but identifiable. You are entitled to your own views and, consequently, your own speech. You are not entitled to abuse or consequent discrimination. That will lead to tricky situations; it is morally justifiable to refuse to be friends with someone who has views you disagree with, but it is not justifiable to sack someone, or seek them to be dismissed from their job, merely for having (or tolerantly expressing) such views, no matter how bad. Of course, if you job relies on the views you hold or the things you express – being a Conservative MP, for example – then you certainly can and should be sacked for expressing views that liken vaccination to the Holocaust. But if a job lies outside the public sphere, we must resist the urge to enforce our own views on people by making their employers sack them.
The Oxford Union, supposed defender of ‘free speech’, then, should be regarded with intense scepticism. Free from what? Free Speech for who? You cannot answer these questions without making implicit assumptions about where your freedom to speak without consequence ends, and what valid consequences there are for crossing that line. These nuances, however, are lost all too often in the debate for and against the Oxford Union. The debate descends, too frequently, into a discussion of whether or not the Oxford Union is a good thing. Whether or not the institution is classist, unpleasant, or otherwise discriminatory. That is a complete side-show.
We cannot and must not ban organisations just because we disagree with them.
Equally, just because you are free to do something, doesn’t mean you are free from consequences. I’m sorry, but if you hold discriminatory views, I won’t be friends with you. You can’t defend yourself by appealing to ‘free speech’ or ‘freedom of expression’ – yes, you have the right to think what you like, but I also have the right to dislike you. Likely, I will think even worse of you because I have to defend your right to speak and think, whilst disagreeing and even disliking the entire time.
…yes, you have the right to think what you like, but I also have the right to dislike you.
Censorious undertones are common at UK universities. And the Oxford Union, whatever you think of its members and leadership, is a voice fighting against those undertones. You do not have to agree with the Oxford Union, you do not have to join, but in a democracy, you have to tolerate its existence. In fact, you should be free to pretend the Oxford Union doesn’t exist – if you think it’s debates are a waste of time, being held in bad faith, or downright offensive, then you have the right to ignore its existence. Furthermore, complaints about speech are hijacked by those who find it politically expedient, of course, with many people arguing for protection they don’t deserve, or decrying political discrimination that isn’t real. But all too often we students reach for the ability to censor, de-platform, or silence people, when they are not actually doing any harm beyond expressing their thoughts. We must learn to resist that. Free speech may not be sacred, but the right to disagree is.
Image credit: http://www.barkerevans.com/
Image description: Debate Chamber of the Oxford Union Society