I have a dirty little secret. As an undergraduate, I was a debater. Joining debating societies was the first thing on the agenda at both of the universities I’ve attended. I’ve spent my fair share of time perfecting heckles and delivering speeches to chambers both packed and near-empty. I spent a year helping to run one such society.
Back then, I was always the one mounting a full-throated defence of unrestricted free speech, believing that there was no-one who truly deserved to be denied a platform. Bring us your fascists, your communards, your firebrands and your heroes and we’ll give them all a voice. For me – and many others who immersed ourselves in university debating – we offered a crucible of free debate, where no idea went unchallenged, no consensus undisturbed.
I’m a few years older now. I live in a different country, I’m in up to my neck in the joys of postgraduate study, and recently I’ve been thinking back to that old me. The guy who was embarrassed but not particularly worried to be part of a society which was overwhelmingly male, who hadn’t learnt that meritocracy can be a dirty word, who thought that sound and fury was what really made a great debate.
This is all coming back today because the Cambridge Union – of which I’m a member – has decided to invite Dominique Strauss-Kahn to speak this term. I think it’s important to look at this for what it is.
The Union’s website mightn’t even give a sniff of this, but the invitation of Strauss-Kahn is a huge deal. Not only has Strauss-Kahn had to step down from the IMF over an accusation of rape in New York, new information keeps coming through. More women have come forward in France with hair-raising stories of their own experience at his hands. And now, having admitted that his actions in the US were at the very least a ‘moral fault’, he’s now under investigation for his involvement in a prostitution ring. But Union President Katie Lam isn’t worried. She told the Telegraph “He hasn’t been found guilty of anything and it’s not up to us to judge him.”
I know he’s not been convicted. I know that the argument I’m making here would have had young debater John frothing at the mouth – am I trying to do away with the presumption of innocence? Don’t I think that this man’s importance in international politics means he’s worth hearing? And, if I really hate what he stands for, shouldn’t I be in favour of his coming to Cambridge to be shown up for what he really is by the finest minds and the best speakers at this university?
Well, that’s the thing. If you’ve had a look at the Union’s termcard, you’ll see that Strauss-Kahn isn’t coming for a debate. He’s coming to give a talk. This is a classic student debating society thing: basically, if you’ve invited someone famous and controversial enough, the ball’s in their court about how they’re treated. Sure, they’ll have to face a few questions at the end. But they’re not going to be subjected to the real cut-and-thrust of a debate. No-one else is getting to stand up after them and tear their talk apart. Instead, any opposition there might be gets crammed into one-minute remarks from the floor, all made under the watchful eye of the chair, who’s been snaffling sandwiches and shaking hands with the speaker beforehand and doesn’t want the afters to be too awkward.
I’ll make a bet with you. Go along to the talk. Listen to what he has to say. If he gives a forty-minute speech about the accusations he’s faced, about his deeply unpleasant attitudes to sex, about his apparently systematic disregard of women throughout his life, I’ll eat an item of headgear of your choice. But if he chooses to speak about the challenges facing France, the IMF, and the European economy in this time of fiscal crisis, then I’m afraid you’ll be chewing bicycle helmet for the next few weeks.
After four years spent doing this sort of thing, I find it really hard to see this as more than a lily-livered attempt to get some more attention in a university and a world which increasingly views student debating societies as overprivileged and irrelevant would-be politicos. The Cambridge Union is acting much like its fellow societies: in recent years we’ve seen Nick Griffin invited to the Oxford Union, and I could name a fair few other examples from my time at university in Ireland. Are we to think that the people in charge of these societies genuinely believe that their guestsare adding something valuable to debate in society? Maybe I’m an old cynic. Maybe things have changed since I was around. But back then – and it’s not very long ago – what seemed to matter more than anything to debating societies was the attention. Interest used to wane as the year went on, with audiences at debates declining as the enthusiasm of Freshers’ Week wore off.
But that’s what it was all about: Freshers’ Week. Every September we’d be sifting through the replies the society had received to its hundreds of invites. Who sounded like they might make the trip? Who was confirmed? Who looked just certain enough to be slapped on a glossy poster to entice in new students and bump up membership figures? There were times when it seemed like our job wasn’t debating ideas, but collecting big names like football stickers.
Of course there was more to it than that: I couldn’t be prouder of some of the debates we ran. I did see big names go down in flames, and I saw some truly great speakers – from Desmond Tutu to Ian Paisley – and I loved introducing new students to debating and watching them go from strength to strength. If I was an undergrad again, I’d still be signing up first thing on arriving at university.
But I’ve also come to question a lot of the things I took for true. And when I watch the (no doubt zealously pro-free speech) debaters of the Cambridge Union rush to defend their choice of invitee, I start to wonder. I wonder whether they’re thinking the same way as did the founders of early debating societies, who had to hold secret meetings and face discipline from their universities for arguing the topical issues of the day. I wonder, in today’s debating chambers, whether oratory and engagement really trump a screaming headline and a few days’ controversy in Varsity, or the Cherwell, or – the holy grail – a national newspaper.
Maybe I am just a cynic. I don’t know. I think I saw too much crowing, too many high-fives over guests that were infamous enough to stick on a poster, while Nobel laureates or others who’d had the gall to make a difference quietly and without becoming the story were never seen as such a coup. I fell victim to that kind of thinking too. It’s not hard, in the pressure-cooker of student societies, where argumets and atmospheres are so bitter, following Sayre’s Law, because the stakes are so small.
It’s sad. I think there’s a space for debating societies. I think they do amazing things day in, day out, that don’t get a splash in the Telegraph or a crowd of protesters outside. But when I see something like this, I wonder if we’ve lost our way. I suppose this is all I want to ask the Cambridge Union: is this big? And is this clever?
Thanks for reading.
Apologies for the less-than-historical theme of this post. Normal service resumes soon, I promise.