I want to respond to an article written by one of the students who campaigned for the abortion debate at Oxford University to be shut down.
You may be aware that a debate on abortion, set to take place at Oxford University, was shut down: This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All, with Timothy Stanley and Brendan O’Neil. Niamh Mcintyre described on The Independent why she campaigned against it.
Our Best Standard
Mcintyre noted that the University doesn’t actually have the power to shut down free speech. This is true, whatever might have been said in the debate could be said on another occasion.
Let’s not forget, according to O’Neil, writing for The Tab, that some students set up a Facebook group, with 300 likes, who would have turned up at the debate with ‘instruments’, attempting to get it shut down in that way. I doubt, however, that she was associated with this group.
She continued, to say:–
It may seem harmless for men like Stanley and O’Neil to debate how and if abortion hurts them; it’s clearly harder for people to see that their words and views might hurt women.
Words have effects, of course; speech convinces people to act, or to make policy. It is conceivable that on a given occasion, someone’s speech could make the world worse.
So, how, given this, should we act? Once an individual or group decides that they know what speech will and will not enrich or impoverish the community, they have fundamentally overstepped the bounds of what is possible to know.
Just as, in the search for knowledge, a fair test may still give the wrong result, we still must use the scientific method. We mustn’t pretend to know the correct answer before we start the experiment.
This is, effectively, what Mcintyre is saying: she already has the right answer, and doesn’t need a couple of men to ask the question again. Wrong. The search for knowledge is unending, our only rule, our only axiom, has to be as much, as varied and as free speech as is possible. Asking for anything less than that is to pretend to be God.
The Wisdom of the Uninvolved
Mcintyre seemed to imply, and I hope that I haven’t misunderstood, that people who aren’t affected by the outcome of a given discussion should not participate.
As for having the right to participate, I claim the right to comment on any topic whatsoever. I hope that this is covered by the statement that the individual has the right to freedom so far as it does not impinge upon the safety or the freedom of others – free speech on any topic does not conflict with that rule.
There are, of course, difficult cases, such as when speech may be counted as an action, but I don’t think that that applies in this case.
The abortion question is one of ethics and, as such, is universal. By comparison, I believe that the individual has the right to use many of the drugs that are currently illegal. This is because their taking them doesn’t affect others.
I wouldn’t dream, however, of shutting down a speech by someone who holds the opposing view; let’s not forget, also, that thousands of people are currently in prison for non-crimes such as this.
Even if the abortion issue were as simple as the drug issue, it would still not be right to stifle discussion in this way. Moreover, abortion can’t be summarised as:–
my uterus isn’t up for their discussion
because people, such as the unborn, have rights that can’t be dissolved due to being inside or dependent on another person. I haven’t thought about this issue enough to formulate an opinion, but I know that a statement like this makes as much sense as saying my fist, car, gun or house isn’t up for their discussion.
I would say, in addition, that disinterested voices add a great deal of clarity to a discussion. In many cases, personal involvement causes a lack of perspective, and people who are not affected often have the ability to see things with a greater level of objectivity.
This is why, of course, people should be tried by juries, not victims.
So, enjoy your free speech while it lasts. The students who got this event shut down didn’t affect true free speech because they didn’t have the power to do so. Imagine what they’ll do if they do get the power.