The call to shut down the Pro Life Society is philosophical and linguistic anti-Jujutsu.
Warning: this article discusses abortion and violence.
Update: the Guild has issued a statement and will allow the society to operate:
As part of the University’s Policy and Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech the Guild is required to ensure that individuals and groups are free, within the law, to hold meetings or other activities “regardless of the beliefs, views, policies or objectives of that individual or body.” Further, the law makes clear that students unions have to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body or persons on any ground connected with (a) the beliefs or views of that individual or any member of that body; or (b) the policy objectives of that body.” (Education (No.2) Act 1986).
This means that the Guild is unable to turn down a proposal for a society simply on the basis of that group’s ideas or views, unless those opinions break the law. Our requirement to protect free speech means that, even if our democratic structures were to decide that they did not wish to approve a particular society, we would be unable to act on that direction, as doing so would be in breach of our obligations to protect free speech. We recognise that this will disappoint members who wanted this matter to be discussed, however, we do not believe it is fair to give students the impression that they are able to make change, where this is not the case.
Students at Liverpool University have set up a Pro-Life society – in response, some are outraged, while some have gone so far as to petition to have it banned. I take an interest in this, being a Liverpool alumnus. The aim of the petition is in error, in my view, for the following reasons: it would stifle discussion; it is an unnecessary escalation to a higher authority (you might want an authority to intercede on your side but I can guarantee that if you set that precedent, someone will ask the same authority to intercede against you, down the line); the question of abortion isn’t settled; the petition uses linguistic trickery.
See a screenshot of the petition, below:–
This might seem like beginning with my weakest point, but I’m pushing for variety here.
The pro life society is a violation of women’s rights.
What rights do we have? Here’s a popular framework: You have the right to do anything provided that it does not harm others or infringe upon their rights.Certain rights, meanwhile, particularly the right to free speech, are codified in that they are commonly infringed by people and governments.
The language of the petition is slightly unclear, but it seems to suggest that to advocate against abortion is a violation of women’s rights, particularly the sentence ‘These are not religious ideas, they are misogynistic and hateful.’. If I have this wrong and the only thing about that concerned the petitioner was protesters harassing people, I’ll retract this. Needless to say, harassment is a crime and anyone who is threatened in this way should call the police.
So, under what framework do people have the right to not hear certain viewpoints? To my eye, any conception like this would collapse under its own contradictions, as society is made up of a patchwork of different ideologies and ideas, many of which are held as strongly and with as much sensitivity as the abortion debate. Thus, this definition of ‘right’ is incomprehensible, extended so far that it includes entitlements that preclude far more important rights – such as the right to free expression.
This is part of a distressing trend, recently, of using linguistic tricks to try to persuade people of certain ideas. ‘Right’, ‘misogyny’ and ‘oppression’ are common casualties.
The trick works like this: 1. Take a word with a strong association in people’s minds. 2. Drastically extend the definition to include what you want to argue for or against. In this way, people can borrow the power of a noble word like ‘right’ when they are asking for the privilege of not hearing certain viewpoints.
I’m not arguing that the definitions of words shouldn’t change – how could we possibly stop them? I’m arguing that this particular definitional change is disingenuous. From what I can tell, language adapts for the most part in one of three useful ways: 1. organically or though playfulness (e.g. Wicked!) 2. though coinages necessary for specialist fields (e.g. omnishambles, transistor) and 3. poetically or hyperbolically (e.g. ‘My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,/My soul the father; and these two beget/A generation of still-breeding thoughts’).
The linguistic trick is different because those who use it rely on the fact that the word has an existing definition, some of which rubs off on the new concepts that they include. There is no innovation, as in poetry, nor is there actually anything new to describe, as in science. As a result, bad money drives out good and words like oppression and misogy are now tragically funny, inasmuch as one can oppress with words and be a kind-hearted misogynist.
Ethnic cleansing. This is a dirty phrase, right? The same has happened to these words but in the opposite direction. What people who play this trick forget is that words are only labels and, although they get the desired impact for a while, pretty soon the associations in people’s mind alter the feel of the word. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ was supposed to take a nasty thing and give it a nice title, all that happened was that the title came to sound nasty.
So, what the petition really means is that the petitioner doesn’t want to hear certain things, that others shouldn’t hear them or even that people shouldn’t utter particular viewpoints.
As to whether opposing abortion is misogynistic, I’ll come to that below.
The Question of Abortion Isn’t Settled
The petitioner seems to think that the question of abortion is settled to the extent that anyone who opposes it is a misogynist. I’m not arguing for or against abortion, but I want to show why I think it’s an open question.
The main argument that the petitioner uses is that of bodily autonomy – a worthy premise. The argument for abortion is usually formulated thus: the baby, foetus etc. (so many words, so little time – I’ll use ‘progeny’, hereafter, for simplicity when referring to the offspring at any age) is within and dependent on the mother, therefore the mother has the right to terminate it, should she wish.
Now, this becomes a weighing of rights: does the mother’s bodily autonomy outweigh the child’s right to life or, for that matter, it’s own bodily autonomy? Or, when does the progeny attain the right to life? I’ve heard many argue that the progeny has no right to life until it’s born and can support itself – if the deciding factor is the location of the progeny and how it is supported, the argument seems nonsensical, as this would mean that people on heart-lung machines had no right to life. If you have the right to life, it applies wherever you are.
Right now, the abortion laws in the UK are related to whether the progeny can survive outside the mother. This, however, cannot be an actual ethical premise in that it’s a moving target, and I’m pretty sure there will come a point at which, with modern medicine, progeny can survive outside the mother at any point. Meanwhile, we’ve never granted ourselves the right to kill people that were going to die anyway, e.g. mortally wounded soldiers, the terminally ill (whom, in the UK, we can’t, even if they ask for it).
Another popular argument is that, before a certain point, the progeny is not sufficiently intelligent to warrant rights. Perhaps this is true, and I’m not sure, but I’m not even sure that this is a reasonable way to conceive of life or of anything dynamic. The point being that the progeny is in the process of gaining the intelligence that will earn it rights, just as Amazon is worth billions of dollars, but rarely runs a profit.
Meanwhile, take this example: someone harms a pregnant mother in a way that causes the pregnancy to fail, prior to the point where, under this conception, it gains its rights – what is the assailant guilty of? If the premise holds, then the assailant is guilty only of harming the woman, nothing else. I don’t think anyone actually thinks this.
What I’m trying to illustrate here is that the question is a long way from being settled: we don’t yet have an ethical framework that is free from contradictions when applied to this problem. Or it will never be free from contradictions. As such, to be pro life isn’t to be misogynistic, to regard it as such is effectively to end what should be an active discussion in one’s mind.
Questions of this sort: speech, ideas etc. should be settled verbally. Rather, people on campus have escalated this to the Guild. Hopefully others will resist the temptation, but the precedent is now set for people, when they hear or see opinions they don’t like, to escalate it, weighing down Guild of Students with rival societies trying to ban each other, rather than talking it out.
Be careful what you wish for, it’s only a matter of time before your opponents use your wish against you.
The Stifling of Debate
Some people may remember when, during my first year of university (if memory serves), the Islamic Society invited a speaker to present at one of their events. This caused uproar, because the speaker had harsh words to say about gays, and people called for the event to be shut down. I don’t hold anything against the Islamic Society, as, for all I know, they could’ve asked him along so they could grill him.
I wanted to head to the event with some friends and ask awkward questions and, if possible, record it and put it online. Rather, the event was cancelled, so as to preserve the safe space. None of us had our day in court, and we lost the chance to debate the issues and draw attention – if this guy was as bad as he was made out to be – to his views. This is just another example of safe spaces making the world more dangerous.
The same is true for the case in point – rather than having the Pro Life Society as a locus of ideas and a focus of discussion, people seem to want all this to disappear. Students have set up a Pro Choice Society, which is excellent news, and, if the Pro Life Society survives, I would be thrilled to see the two debate and deep the issues go.
Rather, it seems as though some think that there’s no discussion to have: they’re right and other people just need to wake up to this fact. It has never worked like this. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, when asked whether he wanted the argument over religion to be over: I don’t want the discussion to be over, we’ll keep arguing and keep perfecting our arguments and, each time, their arguments will fail more spectacularly.
Scott Adams made an interesting point during his appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience recently, posing that if we were actually to go to war with Russia, say, it probably wouldn’t work, as the chain of command, technology etc. on which America’s nuclear strike capabilities rely have never been used or haven’t been in decades. The same is true with discussions: when you think your arguments are invincible or ban your opponents from speaking, your philosophy will atrophy – staying in the echo-chamber for too long damages your hearing.