Oxford Union Society’s “Freedom of Speech and Right to Offend” Debate

Some people’s idea of [free speech] is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.
Winston Churchill

Oxford Union Society has an interesting debate on the freedom of speech, with the proposition that the right to free speech always includes the right to offend. There are three speakers for and three against this proposition.

Brendan O’Neill | Freedom of Speech and Right to Offend | Proposition

Brilliant start with the historical intro and the modern use of censorship (“no platformed”). And his way of dealing with questions (“No.”) … waow. And yup, the goal is to police thought, to determine what is right and wrong for others. And yup, it’s intolerance of other people’s ideas. Ideas that bring mankind forward. Yep, “Offensiveness is the motor of human progress.” And yup, very paternalistic to say that women are super-fragile and very neo-colonialist to say that black students need to be protected from ‘harmful ideas’. And his point that the issue is this idea of human vulnerability, the notion that humans are fragile and therefore our speech and our relations must be monitored and policed. And yup, it’s a misanthropic idea.

Totally agree with his position.

Tim Squirrell | Freedom of Speech and Right to Offend | Opposition

Oh-ha … okay, I’m totally for the motion that the right to free speech always includes the right to offend, so this guy doesn’t have it easy in the first place. But seriously, two jokes that completely fall flat to start with? When you think the jokes are offensive, you can’t tell them. Not because it would be unethical, but because telling a joke that works requires you to tell it with conviction. And you don’t have it. And seriously, did you expect laughter? Or didn’t you?

And really — this person speaking for marginalized groups? Why? To feel good? To feel moral? There’s a great comment by … I think Jonathan Rauch, who advocates for free speech and is very critical of hate speech regulation. Because it was and will always be used against minorities and marginalized groups, not for them. I share his position. Minorities and marginalized groups frequently are seen as people who give offense, e.g., that it is offensive when two men have sex. Free speech and the right to offend protects them more than it protects the majority.

Perhaps the moment I liked most in Squirrell’s talk was when Squirrell cited Brendan O’Neill and O’Neill clapped, leading to the audience clapping with O’Neill. Clever way to steal Squirrell’s thunder. And really, questioning the use of a thick skin? Since when is being weak a virtue? How incredibly condescending to declare other people as weak and vulnerable — although not surprising if you want to exploit them to feel moral or good.

BTW, if he is really for marginalized groups and thinks other people should be invited to speak (that bit about structural barriers) — why didn’t he decline? Why didn’t he say “No, person x is ahead when it comes to marginalization points, so invite that person.”? My guess (and I don’t know him) is that he likes to play the white knight, but would not want to let the people — whom he ostensibly fights for — fight for themselves. He wouldn’t get the fame and feeling of righteousness. He’s probably rather have them weak and stay weak.

And when it comes to “not all views are created equal” — who judges? And shouldn’t the population judge? Rather than a few self-appointed guardians of good-speech?

Peter Hitchins [sic!] | Freedom of Speech and Right to Offend | Proposition

Peter Hitchens is often hated (and frankly, I liked his late brother more, who also was in a debate about freedom of speech and the right to offend), but he does have a couple of good points. And he is a great debater. Love the way he wins the audience in the beginning, and then drives home his points. First off, by showing in practice how to deal with offense (regarding the Facebook page: “Peter Hitchens must die.” he says “Broadly I agree with it, it’s a statement of fact.”). Also his point that it is not what the offensive person has said but what the offended person believes him to have said. Yup, great point. It’s today’s outrage culture, or outrage porn culture. Or in his words, a dictatorship of rage. Fury, rage, etc. leads to denial of platform and ostracism and silences these people.

Also that an insult is something personal that stays with you at least the rest of the evening and that an insult is not reading an expression of a different opinion — oh yeah. And that it’s about suppressing views — with a great deal of self-righteousness. And the use of pathology (-phobia) to ostracize people … great point. Never noticed it but they are ascribing a mental disorder to people with different views. Also his differentiation between uneducated mobs, educated students, and the state … yuppa.

Kate Brooks | Freedom of Speech and Right to Offend | Opposition

Update (2015-11-22): If the video is not displayed, have a look at this posting.

Woaw … the sexism and racism (men/whites must move over) is staggering. So is the finger-wagging. Seriously, these kinds of people are inside a prestigious university? And hey, the question from the woman from the audience and the resulting applause was golden. 🙂 (And you may think of Peter Hitchens what you want, but his lying back and staring at the ceiling … yep, he says what he wanted without words.)

But her “arguments” … meh.

As as for unequal access — hey, it’s the 21st century. Go online. Start a blog, start a vlog. Put your opinion out there and see whether people can take something from it. Just don’t expect you get a column in a traditional newspaper handed over to you, just because you feel you deserve it (e.g., because you are a minority). Nobody gets a column handed over. You have to prove that you can write things that interest readers. And with the Internet — you can prove it. If — and that’s a big if — you can get readers. Of course, it’s much easier to blame “unequal access”.

As for lads mags and silencing women … first of all, men and women get roughly the same amount of shit online. It’s the Internet, and if you speak in public, you can neither expect nor demand leniency. Deal with it. Second, the worst comments about other women I’ve heard were not made by men, but by other women. Something that’s usually ignored in these contexts. And third, #gamergate is not about threatening women with violence if they don’t shut up. It’s about ethics in journalism and it’s about stopping cultural authoritarians who want to decide what is good and what is bad in gaming (without knowing the culture).

And Peter Hitchens really nails it again (“You said at the beginning you didn’t read our columns and it’s absolutely evident from what you’ve said this evening that you don’t.”).

All in all … how is it that some extremely privileged women blame (white) men for everything while presuming to speak for “marginalized groups”? The self-righteousness, the lack of reflection, and the lack of self-awareness is hard to watch (frankly, I’m a bit disgusted). And I’m making a prediction here — she will get a lot of negative feedback for what she has said, and how she has said it. And I’m willing to bet, she will see it as a sign that women (like her) are marginalized and especially hated in discussions. While completely ignoring that her position was untenable and her way of arguing was arrogant, sexist, racist — and unbecoming of a person who visits any kind of university. (But hey, easier to assume society is sexist and ignore any kind of negative feedback.) [Update: Yup, I was right. See posting here.]

Shami Chakrabarti | Freedom of Speech and Right to Offend | Proposition

Probably the weakest speaker for freedom of speech and the right to offend, at least in the beginning. She wasted nearly half of her time, then she split the proposition. But she made a solid point in the end. One shared by the Churchill comment in the beginning of this posting.

Ruvi Ziegler | Freedom of Speech and Right to Offend | Opposition

Found it hard to follow this would-be diplomat. But a few points … there’s a difference between violence, and hostility, and offense. Seems like a slippery slope fallacy. As for speech having no value and only made to offend … offense can be a value. Ridicule is a powerful tool against stupid positions. You say that the emperor has no clothes. And who judges what actually has value? Ms. Chakrabarti made the point as well in her comment. After all, it might not have value for you, but it might have value for others. As for utility … same problem. Who determines utility? The risk here is that people in power — and today, it’s often outrage mobs — will try to silence anything that does not fit into their world view.

And … comparing free speech and offense to armed conflicts and the killing of civilians … are you serious? You need to leave the university more often.

So, all in all, interesting, but also extremely depressing regarding the side against freedom of speech/offense. They are essentially arguing for a nanny-state, for the peace of a graveyard, for self-censorship. And they claim to speak for the most vulnerable in a self-righteous tone that makes me think that they are actually after power, after control, than for protecting people. And I seriously wonder whether they have actually done a survey what those groups they claim to speak/advocate for actually want.


Update (2015-08-27): Given the strong like-dislike ratio of some of the videos (i.e., those against the proposition that the right to free speech always includes the right to offend; check the YouTube links), I guess it’s a good idea to download the ones you want to keep. E.g., via the Firefox Plugins: “Download YouTube Videos as MP4” or “Video DownloadHelper” (install and use at your own risk).

Judging by past experiences, a common method by SJWs to deal with public debate failures is to try to remove the video (e.g., the German “Hart aber Fair” talk show discussion about gender, link to a German advocacy site; or the McElroy vs. Valenti “Rape Culture” discussion, well, really only the Valenti-part, actually, the contrast between these women is striking, Valenti-speech here on another advocacy site (with a lot of “Schadenfreude”), and the impressive McElory video is still on YouTube).

After all, these three debaters think that it is desirable (for them) to censor speech if it gives offense (in their view), and they might just find that offense in the comments and the ratings.

Update (2015-12-02): There’s a follow up posting here.


  1. @Richard

    Good question. I looked at their website but while there’s a page for the debate results, it seems old and I couldn’t find this debate. According to Peter Hitchens blog post, the debate was some months ago, but I couldn’t find a debate term card either (BTW, in that posting he also addresses Ms Brooks comment regarding his remarks about Muslims. The article he’s referring to is also linked. I agree with his assessment — what Ms Brooks read was not what he had written.). Perhaps they’ll add it. Judging by the debates they had, the videos on YouTube seem to be from different weeks with some gaps in between. Or I am simply missing something.

    But judging by the applause and given the venue and its history, I’d assume that the motion was carried that the right to free speech always includes the right to offend. But I’d be interested in seeing the results. And frankly, while that’s one thing I really like about the “intelligence squared” debates, I’d really like to hear some interviews with people against the motion. Especially, why do they think this way? Esp. in an university setting. I’d guess it follows the moral framework theory (Haidt) that an instinctive reaction is first made (it’s good vs. bad), and then rationalization searches for/constructs arguments for this position. And looking back at Ms Brooks misinterpretation of what Peter Hitchens wrote, there’s a strong confirmation bias at work.

  2. @Jason

    Thank you. 🙂 There are also interesting comments in Peter Hitchens column on the debate and on the respective YouTube videos (with the usual trolling and the like). Regarding the YouTube videos, the like-dislike ratio is also … interesting. And like expected, Ms Brooks did get a lot of flak.

  3. I do think it’s a bit off that Kate Brooks seems to have gone around trying to get all memory of her part in the debate removed from record.

    There was a lot to criticise in her performance and not just the ideas put forward. She was very patronising and aggressive, and her arguments relied heavily on vague po-mo and political terms like “discourse”, “privilege”, accusing society of being racist and misogynist. It was everything that is wrong with politics today.

    I’ve seen a video* where someone (who had previously criticised her) reads out a message he’d received from her saying that in fact those weren’t her views at all.

    That’s all very well – I wonder how much of what she said she believes. Personally, I rather wish she would come out and *say* what she actually thinks, rather than trying to erase all memory of what she said in this weird way. Surely she could silence her critics by just making clear what she thinks?

    * https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxo8muhNwbM

  4. Frankly I am more concerned that a competitive debater thinks it is a winning strategy to use sexist and racist “arguments” to win a debate. I get people who are in it for the win because they actually believe in what they say (no matter how biased). But this mercenary style … this usage of sexism and racism to score points in a debate … that says a lot about today’s society.

    Anyway, I’ve written an update on the discussion and — given that Sargon of Akkad has interviewed her — I’d likely update that update in the next few days.

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