‘Safe debate’ means no debate

A tyranny of hurt feelings is ruining university debating societies.

Omar Loubak Mohamed

Topics Free Speech Identity Politics UK

Universities were once vital spaces where students could enjoy intellectual freedom. They were more than just venues for learning. And student debating societies were an essential part of this climate. They were places where ideas could be challenged and defended. Where arguments were honed and perspectives were changed.

But it seems that many debating societies have forgotten their old commitments to free expression. By prioritising ‘emotional safety’ over intellectual exchange, debating societies are destroying what made them so important in the first place.

This was demonstrated in bizarre fashion during a debating tournament last month, hosted by the US’s National Speech and Debate Association. During the final round, participants were charged with debating the costs and benefits of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But Team A informed Team B that they would not discuss the topic. Why? Because trans people are being ‘genocided’ by ‘MAGA Republicans’. While these wild claims had nothing to do with the IMF, the debaters were still keen to use the competition to make a political point about gender.

Team A then proudly declared that ‘misgendering’ is a form of violence, and that those who do it should face an automatic loss in debate competitions. It was a blatant call for censorship. They then pledged to ‘occupy the debate space until trans debaters can participate safely’, and invited the judges and the other team to ‘affirm’ their ‘performance’.

And so they did. Team B immediately conceded the round, probably because they didn’t want to dispute that trans ‘genocide’ is real and thus be labelled as transphobic. For their part, the judges incessantly praised Team A for their bravery and courage, crowning them the national debating champions.

This strange incident reflects the turn against debate within debating societies and competitions. ‘Safety’ has become the order of the day. Debaters are told not to make generalisations that may ‘harm’ people. Stating one’s gender pronouns has also become common practice in competitive debating. As has the use of trigger warnings. Debaters are instructed to be ‘inclusive’ by warning people before they utter certain words or arguments. This is something my own debating society has started doing.

All of this shuts down debate, rather than opening it up. It also has the potential to backfire spectacularly. Indeed, studies suggest that trigger warnings can lead to people becoming more anxious. They are based on the notion that avoiding upsetting content helps reduce anxiety. But researchers have consistently found that avoiding upsetting content can actually worsen the symptoms of PTSD and anxiety.

Teaching people to hide from so-called emotional harm is actually an incredibly unhealthy thing to do, because so-called emotional harm is essentially inevitable in society. University debating used to be a great way of teaching students how to deal with ideas they might find distressing – namely, by arguing back. It taught students how to respond to criticism and develop an argument. It used to be helpful for preparing them for the real world. But no more.

This ‘safetyism’ does not make debating more ‘inclusive’ or improve students’ ‘emotional wellbeing’. Instead, it only hampers their personal and intellectual progression. And many students are acutely aware of this. After all, many debating societies began life as an act of rebellion against the speech restrictions of their respective universities. The Oxford Union was founded to be a place where Oxford students could host debates, regardless of whether the topics were deemed controversial by the university. Today, debating societies are at risk of losing their independent, pro-free-speech streak.

If we want students to become strong-minded members of society, they need to become accustomed to dealing with disagreement and offence. To this end, students must be allowed to say what they want, to make their own mistakes, to risk being an idiot and to learn in the process.

Instead, the mantra of ‘safe debating’ is encouraging students to try to silence arguments they deem offensive. This is fuelling campus cancel culture.

You don’t win a debate by suppressing discussion. You win it with a better argument. Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of this simple truth. Today’s students desperately need to rediscover it.

Omar Loubak Mohamed is a writer, student and co-founder of Speak Easy.

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Free Speech Identity Politics UK


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