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

A university is a place where men of principle outnumber men of honor.
Ernest May

After writing my initial comment on the Oxford Union Society “Freedom of Speech and Right to Offend” debate, I wrote the following update:

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.

And I was right. A few weeks after the Oxford Union Society put the videos of the debate online (see my posting here, or here on YouTube), Oxford Union Society decided to make one of the six videos private.

Screenshot of the YouTube site with the missing (made private) video displayed on the right side.

Yep, called it.

Strangely, I also did receive an eMail — apparently — by Ms. Brooks, requesting the removal of the video from my site.

The “Request to Remove Debate Video from Your Website” mail actually reinforces my view that people who argue badly about censorship know too little about online media. Here for example that I do not host the video on my website. I use the YouTube sharing function to share a video put online by the Oxford Union Society. If they remove it (or put it on private), it isn’t shown anymore on my blog (as it is now the case). And the Oxford Student Union is well aware of this feature, after all, they write on their About page:

**If you would like to use any of these clips please use the YouTube embed code**

I take that sentence (and the availability of the sharing functions) as strong arguments that they want their videos to be shared on websites.

But it seems like they did follow Ms Brooks request and put the video private.

Personally, It think it’s a mistake.

I can understand her reasons:

  1. She was “quite bad in this debate” (“quite” doesn’t quite cut it).
  2. According to her, it wasn’t her position but a position she was assigned to.
  3. Apparently — she faces harassment by “men’s rights groups” for it

So she wants the video gone.

Unfortunately, in these as in other circumstances, these reasons aren’t very convincing. And in addressing these reasons, I’m also addressing the removal of a video in general — and why it’s a really bad strategy. (And yup, if I ever put something online that’s really bad, it will haunt me. But while it is hard and many — if not most — people fail in dealing smartly with embarrassing mistakes, it’s also the only way to avoid repeating mistakes.)

1. Being “quite bad in this debate”

Yes, she was very bad. Not only did she do sloppy research and went for emotional arguments, she made sexist and racist arguments. Additionally, she was very impolite. And the last thing you want is to remove yourself from justly deserved feedback. Personally, I would keep the video as a reminder and a strong “never again” (to act this way, not to speak in public).

And, BTW, that’s the risk associated with the reward when you step into the public. You can become widely known (in general or in certain circles). But that reputation can be good or bad (in general, or depending on the circles) depending on your performance. And speaking in public and defending or refuting views isn’t easy. If it were easy and without risk of failure, it wouldn’t be worth praising. So, if you step into the public, you can neither demand nor expect leniency. And there is no delete button in the public consciousness.

2. Being assigned to a position

Actually, that she did not chose her position doesn’t make a difference.

Yes, there is a strong effect that people assume you really hold a position if you defend it, even when they know you were randomly assigned to a topic or just are able to take different points of view. It’s one of the things that drive me nuts: few people understand that entertaining a thought does not mean that you accept it (to quote Aristotle). But is this really the problem here?

Frankly, being able to play devil’s advocate is a valuable skill. There’s this thing called “opposition research”. There is value in being able to argue successfully for any side, whether you agree to it or not. But the issue here isn’t her position, it’s how she argued for it.

Being assigned to a topic doesn’t give you a carte blanche to dish out insults to whole groups and then say “But it wasn’t my view.” It’s no excuse for bad faith (or sloppy research) or perhaps even malice. You may not own the position, but you should at least own the arguments. It should be a matter of honor to present the best arguments against a position even if you agree with the overall position, because having to deal with these arguments makes the position stronger. That’s how the marketplace of ideas should work.

3. Facing harassment

Well, that wasn’t hard to foresee.

Sure, I (and perhaps 95% of other Internet users) deplore threats and abuse. But I wonder whether most of the fallout is actually harassment. Or whether it’s actually strong critique (incl. ridicule).

And strong critique and ridicule — that’s deserved. Just look at the video and replace “white” with “black” (and vice versa) and “men/man” with “women/woman” (and vice versa). It’s not surprising that people strongly dislike racism and sexism — even when it’s directed at white men.

As for the threats and abuse — if they are credible, there’s the police. People who make actual threats should face legal consequences. The content on the Internet shouldn’t be changed, they should be removed from it.

But mostly I’d guess that the video drew a lot of trolls. She did paint a huge target on herself and trolls saw an easy victim (the narrative that women are especially vulnerable to harassment online really doesn’t help here, BTW). And she (and the Oxford Union Society) rewarded the trolls by pulling the video. Exactly the strategy you shouldn’t do. Makes it worse for everybody else (plus is rather pointless given that the Internet never forgets).

Even worse, it’s a missed opportunity. After all, the video did show a certain attitude I find in other people as well, and just because it did draw trolls is no reason to remove it. Because it also removes the ability to criticize these attitudes. The behavior of some sociopaths is no reason to prevent a large group of people from having a critical discussion about controversial subjects and positions. Otherwise you can stop putting debates online — because any contribution can draw trolls.

In Sum

So, the whole development wasn’t that hard to foresee. Frankly, I think she made a mistake in the way she “debated”, and then she made a second mistake in trying to deal with the inevitable fallout by removing the video. Granted, that’s not an easy situation to be in and mistakes happen.

But she argued for the a certain position in public, she tried to win a debate. If the Oxford Union Society did not inform her that the debate would be recorded and put online, then the Oxford Union Society should be held responsible and publicly reprimanded or even sued. But I guess the cameras weren’t that inconspicuous. This wasn’t a cellphone camera from the fourth row, this was professionally done.

I can understand the personal embarrassment she faces, and it speaks positively of her that she does not want to be “that person” (also I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if some radical groups had cheered her on — would it still have been a problem that she was, e.g., assigned to the position?).

But removing a video leads to a Streisand effect, rewards trolls (not MRAs, but sociopaths who “just want to have fun” — via other people’s pain and embarrassment, who now have a clear victory by having a debate society remove a video), and doesn’t deal with the actual problem.

A better reaction

Frankly, I think the best reaction would have been to add a disclaimer to the video. A short screen showing, e.g., “Ms Brooks is a competitive debater assigned to this position. Her actual views are xyz. Here you see what a competitive speaker can do and how convincing such a speaker can argue for a position.” Or something like that.

While her arguments were really bad, she did a convincing job of making people believe she really held that position. Most PR speakers would envy her for that ability (although not for the debating style). Adding a disclaimer and standing to one’s mistakes would have shown more competence and courage than a request for removal. Not to mention that the video will resurface — it’s the Internet, nothing is truly lost (no, I won’t put it online, but others have and will). And without the disclaimer, people will associate her talk with her position again and again.

The whole fallout was also an opportunity to show how to deal gracefully with obnoxious comments. The way Peter Hitchens started his debate. That opportunity was lost by the request for removal.

At they very least adding a disclaimer and leaving the video online would have avoided a really strange situation: A person is asking for the removal of the fourth of six videos, and the second one arguing against freedom of speech, while suggesting to be actually not against freedom of speech. There’s a certain irony here.

And it would have avoided making Oxford Union Society look … well, really bad for the way they conducted and published the discussion. Because removing the video — I think that’s a blight on a debate society that “has been established for 190 years, aiming to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe”.

Mistakes should be examined and learned from, not removed from view.


Update: Some small edits and changed the order of the beginning of this posting (as usual, some things you see only after hitting the “publish” button).

Update (2015-12-02): Sargon of Akkad did an interview with Kate Brooks. You can watch it on YouTube.

Personally, the main problem I have with attitudes like hers remains. Just because a person was assigned to a position does not excuse bad behavior. I mean, that’s basically the mindset of a mercenary without conscience or code of honor. Perhaps it is because I enjoy watching the intelligence squared debates and other debates where proponents actually believe what they argue for, but I expect more from debaters.

There’s also the issue that it is apparently considered to be a winning strategy in a debate to tell white men to “move over”. That says a lot about today’s society. At least this “argument” tanked in the debate — that actually gives me some hope. Still, if a person thinks it’s okay to act like a racist and sexist to score debate points and then say “I was assigned to that position” — it doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse. You can’t delegate personal responsibility — and like written in the posting above — even if you don’t own the position, you should at least stand behind the arguments.

And seriously, if I had to chose between two evils, I’d take the racists and sexists by conviction over the opportunists. As bad as the former are, at least they have integrity. They mean what they say, even if what they say is wrong. They might be assholes, but at least they are honest assholes.

And seriously, is this mercenary attitude a general thing in public debates? Do competitive debater simply debate without conscience, just going for a bloody spectacle to win the audience’s favor? Not bound by anything because “it isn’t their position”? Completely forgoing responsibility? And is there no place for integrity and grace?

I mean, look at people like Peter Hitchens, or the late Christopher Hitchens, or Stephen Fry. These people know who to pummel the opposition. You might not agree with them (I don’t, at least not will all positions), but you can’t deny that they have style. That too is what makes them great debaters. But first and foremost, they make good arguments and bring data to life. They sway the audience by smart arguments. They don’t argue in bad faith and they rarely — if ever — insult people (ridiculing bad ideas and ideologies is fair game, though).

If competitive debating forgoes these standards, then what’s the point?


  1. Strange thing, thinking about her “performance” again, still taken aback by her lack of character. Excusing this behavior with being assigned to this side (her “reasoning”) … that’s like saying “I was assigned to this soccer team, so it’s okay if I try to foul everyone.” And that debating society played along …

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