Protests against debates are self-contradictory and unhelpful

Stephen Bick 12 May 2014

In a well-run debate, strong arguments, should they exist, are put forward on both sides of an issue, and debaters are given opportunities to respond, to clarify and to hold each other to account. That’s why I found the protest organised against the holding of a debate last Wednesday both confusing and worrying. A debate is already a protest – it says that an idea (the proposition) is not set in stone, and must be tested to prove its truth. The idea is given a public trial, and is capable of being roundly defeated as well as affirmed. How can we know what is true if the very apparatus used to discover the truth is blocked in some way?

As is often the case, the most important events are the ones most often forgotten. The 1158 Constitutio Habita charter of the University of Bologna granted freedom of passage to travelling scholars, and is now widely seen as the origin of the principle of academic freedom, the freedom of inquiry that must be given to members of a university in order for it to function. In more practical terms, this charter is the beginning of the gloriously gritty way in which we engage in the study of just about anything.

As anyone who has been in a supervision is aware, ideas may well be fine-tuned and improved by this scrutiny, but it’s the student who gets burned. These often unpleasant experiences are incredibly valuable because they (forcefully) encourage us to doubt our convictions and see whether or not they hold up under pressure. While creativity is needed to come up with our ideas, we need scepticism to see if they’re any good, and our best allies here can be both academics and fellow students.

We are lucky to host in our university the oldest (and best) continuous debating society in the world, the Cambridge Union Society, the foundation and running of which should be counted as one of the best achievements of Cambridge students. However, the crucial business of debate is far older than this, and far older than any extant University. Debated argument famously appears as far back in history as Socrates’ dialogues in Ancient Greece, but what we now recognise as modern debate first appears in the disputations of medieval scholastics. Frequently incredibly complex, their structure has nevertheless remained essentially key to the modern debate; proposal, opposition, and a series of objections and counter-objections and verdict decided, these days at least, by a vote.

The participants of the protest on Wednesday seemed intent on shutting down that particular debate as they deemed it unsuitable for discussion. What if there were topics that were forbidden in public debate here in Cambridge? Who would make up the list? Would it be the province of CUSU or an autonomous campaign? Forbidding discussion of an issue means that all power over the foundational ideas of a society, whether that be a university or a nation, is taken away from its members. Many ideas and movements that have been foundational to British society, such as the abolition of the slave trade (spearheaded by Cambridge alumnus William Wilberforce) were minority opinions in their time. Had public discussion been forbidden then, it is possible that they might still be in the minority. How will we be remembered by history if we do the same?

As well as giving unpopular ideas a chance, debating can also deliver a public verdict of condemnation to them. Possibly one of the most controversial topics ever debated in Cambridge was proposed to the now-defunct (though soon-to-be resurrected) Gonville Hall Debating Society in 1997; “This House believes that there are deep-seated racial differences in intelligence”. It is hard to imagine a more poisonous idea, both in its patent falsehood and its fruits, which have been seen in the terrible regimes of the 20th century which took it as an axiom. Unsurprisingly, the attendees of the debate recognised this, and the motion was overwhelmingly defeated by the 98 attendees. Had the debate been blocked by the society, the proposer could perhaps feel as if the society or students were too threatened by the idea to engage with it, or that he was being sidelined. That option was not left open; the floor let it be clearly known that they both respected the proposer enough to let him present his idea, and that his idea was completely and utterly despicable.

This is the kind of attitude that debate in Cambridge should take, and this is the best outcome for our bad ideas; that they are given every opportunity to succeed, that they are scrutinised with the closest examination, that they are shown to be unable to stand, and that they are publicly and definitively defeated. Deciding that topics are not up for discussion is unfair, insulting and leaves us at the mercy of extreme points of view. Voltaire’s biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall summed up his passion for freedom of speech in the timeless phrase that "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

Let’s do likewise, especially for those we most disagree with; without such principles, we have no credibility as an academic community.