‘Men Can’t Talk About Abortion!’, And Other Fauxminist Fallacies
by Peter D. Williams
As RTL advertised last week, a debate had been planned to take place in Oxford on Tuesday night at the Blue Boar Lecture Theatre of Christ Church, between two well-known British political and cultural commentators: the conservative historian Timothy Stanley of the Daily Telegraph, and the libertarian Marxist columnist Brendan O’Neill of Spiked Online. Organised by Oxford Students For Life (OSFL), the title of the debate was to be ‘This House believes that abortion culture harms us all’.
The night before the debate was supposed to happen however, permission for Christ Church to be used as the venue was withdrawn after the Junior Common Room (JCR; the committee that represents the undergraduates of the College) voted to lobby College ‘Censors’ [sic] to cancel on the grounds of ‘mental and physical safety’. The JCR Treasurer Will Neaverson, who proposed the anti-debate motion, reportedly argued that the debate was now a ‘security’ issue.
The ‘safety’/‘security’ issues arose because the event was to be possibly protested by just over 330 students, organised by the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) Women’s Campaign (WomCam), the officially recognised feminist group. The WomCam had released an official statement condemning OSFL for organising the debate, and demanding that they cancel it, whilst attempting to organise as much of a disruption of the event as possible.
OSFL responded with an admirable counter-statement extolling freedom of speech, and inviting the WomCam to organise a debate with them in the interests of open dialogue. After their permission to hold the event at Christ Church was withdrawn, they worked hard to try to find an alternative venue for their debate. Unfortunately, they were consistently turned down, forcing them to reschedule.
As OSFL has recorded, this has been widely reported by anglophone media. Some of what was said during this controversy has since been deleted, but the internet thankfully has a long memory, and a Buzzfeed article has screenshot or recorded all the salient details. Since then, good retrospective comment has been given by both Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill, as well as OSFL itself (giving their side of the story, and asking the questions their opponents ought really to answer). Both speakers have also published the opening speeches they would have given: Stanley in the Catholic Herald, and O’Neill in Spiked.
If any of the details of this debacle sound eerily familiar, it may be because of its similarity to the now perennial abortion lobby attacks on the student right-to-life movement in Cambridge and other university campuses, on which I commented recently. As Ann Furedi, head of BPAS (the UK’s largest abortion provider), rightly accused the Cambridge protestors of “moral cowardice”, so the Oxford abortion lobby protestors and the JCR of Christ Church can rightly be charged with the same. On both a procedural and a moral level both have chilled and shut down reasonable debate with not a shred of viable justification.
Censorious Special Pleading for Patronising Paternalism
The basis for the Christ Church cancellation was ridiculous. Even assuming all the people who said they would attend the protest had actually turned up (which given the nature of these things, and student life, might be thought unlikely), why anyone should think the protest or the debate itself – which people would be attending voluntarily – should threaten the physical or mental safety or security of students is fairly difficult to comprehend. Not to mention incredibly condescending to Oxford students. Understandably, this move was soon mocked as a ludicrous attempt to justify censorship, and it certainly isn’t the first time ‘security’ concerns have been used as a means of curtailing free debate or speech.
This absurd authoritarianism was defended however, by one of the WomCam activists, Niamh McIntyre, in a post for the Independent. What she said could almost be confused for a parody, so nakedly irrational is it in its censorious special pleading, and invidious illiberalism, in making the case for the Christ Church JCR’s patronising paternalism. McIntyre claimed that:
“… cancelling the debate is not a violation of free speech; myself and other undergraduates do not have the power to actually censor. Pro-life groups have plenty of platforms to air their views… In organising against this event, I did not stifle free speech.”
That’s a bit like the Government banning a particular form of speech, and claiming “We’re not violating the freedom to speak. People can always say what they want in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man [neither of which are governed by Whitehall or the U.K. Parliament]! So, by organising the prevention of people from speaking in this country, we did not stifle free speech.” Somehow, I doubt that’s an argument civil libertarian groups would accept. To violate free speech, all someone need do is stop a particular form of speech being allowed where it otherwise would have been if not for their intervention to disallow it. Of course, therefore, the cancellation was a violation of free speech, and of course undergraduates have the power to censor. As already pointed out, the official title of the people who canceled the debate were ‘Censors’, and they were directly lobbied to do so by the Christ Church JCR themselves.
McIntyre may say that she has the right to protest an event of which she disapproves, but that is an equivocation between a legal right (which is undisputed), and a moral right. In the words of Chesterton, “[t]o have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it”, and to engineer the shutting down of the free debate of someone else simply because you don’t like or agree with it, or because it makes you feel uncomfortable, is wrong. It is illiberal, intolerant, and authoritarian.
To further facetiously point out, as McIntyre and others have, that Stanley and O’Neill have other platforms in the media from which they can speak is thus irrelevant, as limiting someone else’s platforms to speak is still limiting (and thus violating) their freedom to speak. Not to mention more powerfully violating the same freedom of the OSFL to listen to particular speech at a particular venue, and in a debate setting where they can hear speakers challenge and respond to each other, and ask searching and critical questions of their own.
McIntyre’s misconceptions on the nature of censorship however, are perhaps due to her deeper confusion on the nature of liberty itself, given her opposition to the very idea of free debate in an open society:
“The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups.”
McIntyre makes this assertion without any evidence to back it up whatsoever. Which is unsurprising, because it happens to be the total opposite of the truth. Free speech, and openness to debate anything helps protect and safeguard marginalised groups, by guaranteeing that their marginalisation is less likely to be covered up by the censorship of oppressive majorities or hostile élites. As the liberal feminist legal scholar David A. J. Richards has argued, free speech allows minorities who have suffered injustice to criticise and critique negative and dehumanising stereotypes, and to respond to harms like hate speech by developing what he calls a “personal moral voice”. As Richards explains(1):
“It is because such voice is personal… that it has the moral authority and integrity that it has in addressing the terms of structural injustice.”
Free speech is thus a critical legal tool and constitutional protection for marginalised people, since, as Richards puts it(2), free speech:
“… empowers the legitimacy and integrity of the politics of identity in the reasonable understanding and remedy of structural injustice of group and national identity whose political power has rested on invisibility and unspeakability of such injustice.”
To address concerns for marginalised groups of individuals, a better case could therefore be made for social initiatives or cultural policies that help enable the speech of such people, rather than campaigns to shut down the speech of others. Despite this, for McIntyre, some topics nevertheless simply have to be privileged as out of bounds for general discussion:
“Debating abortion as if its [sic] a topic to be mulled over and hypothesised on ignores the fact that this is not an abstract, academic issue. It may seem harmless for men like Stanley and O’Neil [sic] to debate how and if abortion hurts them; it’s clearly harder for people to see that their words and views might hurt women.”
Oddly, McIntyre writes as if topics that can be mulled over and on which hypotheses can be made are abstract and academic, but not concrete and practical. Or else that concrete and practical or important issues cannot be thought about and subjected to hypotheses. Why she thinks this is a complete mystery, especially given where she studies. The whole point of being at a university is to consider and argue over things in an abstract and academic way. No doubt, entire departments at Oxford do precisely think and hypothesise on subjects such as war, drug addiction, homelessness, disease, and psychiatric treatment. These are dire issues that affect people deeply on an everyday basis. Why should abortion be any different? Science, in which hypothesis is a necessary first step, deals with topics all the time that are abstract and that also have practical effect.
Beyond her bizarrely baseless false dichotomy, however, the more basic response to what she says is that the whole point of free speech is that it is free. Not limited according to concerns about whether the very fact of having a discussion might “hurt” (i.e. offend, the only “harm” actually mentioned) someone else. We allow the speech even of people whose principles we find reprehensible, because we value the ability to discern truth through free discussion, and our own ability to express our own views freely.
What is also profoundly strange though, is that McIntyre genuinely thinks that the fact of Stanley and O’Neill debating abortion might in some way “hurt women”. Given that the debate was a voluntary event, which anyone could have chosen to ignore, how could this possibly be the case? She explains:
“Access to abortion impacts the lives of women, trans and non-binary people every day, and the threat pro-life groups pose to our bodily autonomy is real, not rhetorical. If you don’t believe me, visit any abortion clinic and witness the sustained aggressions of pro-life pickets… As a student, I asserted that it would make me feel threatened in my own university”
Let’s move past the silly jibe at vigils by some right-to-life groups, most of which, such as the Christian ‘40 Days For Life’ campaigns, constitute prayer and friendly signs across the street, and leafleting, none of which (regardless of what you think of such activities, or the vigils as a part of which they occur) can reasonably be called ‘aggression’ of any kind. The real harm that McIntyre identifies is the very possibility of the right-to-life activism with which she disagrees, and apparently the very possibility that this might actually lead to reduced access to abortion.
Very obviously, this is question begging (as we shall see, a fallacy that tended to characterise much of the WomCam campaign), and special pleading. McIntyre assumes the very thing it is her job to prove in the wider abortion debate – that abortion is a matter of bodily autonomy and should be openly available – and goes on the basis of that assumption to argue that any discussion that might include opposition to it should be stopped. Given that this is the very issue of controversy, what McIntyre is arguing for is the enforced privileging of one side of the argument, and suppression of even discussions by the other side. After all, the very existence of these discussions make her “feel threatened”. Not only her opinions then, should be privileged by university censors, but her feelings too! This astonishing presumption would be funny, if it were not so thoroughly sinister.
McIntyre and her comrades in the WomCam genuinely do not seem to see, or perhaps care, that their belief in the rightness of their cause does not justify dictating to their opponents what kind of debates they may have, or what things should be allowed to be said, in of all things a university the very fundamental purpose of which is the open intellectual exploration and discussion of different ideas!
Truthful Irrelevancies and Relevant Falsehoods
Yet the defence of censorship did not stop there but was extended by, of all people, the current President of the Cambridge Union, Tim Squirrell, in the student newspaper The Tab. In it, Squirrell made a handful of points that were either true but utterly irrelevant, or relevant but completely untrue.
His central case was that freedom of speech is not an absolute freedom to any platform that we should give uncritically, because we should discern whether to give a platform to someone based on whether they meet the same five conditions that we would consider when organising a debate ourselves. Of course, the actual argument against the OSFL debate cancellation is not a necessarily absolutist one. You needn’t hold that absolutely any debate should be given absolutely any platform in order to assert that the specific OSFL debate should not have been denied the platform it had already been granted, in the way that it was, according to the reasons ostensibly justifying this denial. Squirrell argued however, that consideration of his five conditions vindicated Christ Church’s decision to withdraw their platform for the OSFL debate. To see whether this is true, or whether these conditions are reasonably defined, we can simply go through them:
1) “What will actually be said in the debate.”
Squirrell argued that you wouldn’t organise, or give a platform to, a debate that would (presumably, as far you could reasonably expect) include hate speech or incitement to violence. This is perfectly true, but irrelevant as the OSFL did not plan on having such a debate.
2) “Who gets to speak.”
Here, Squirrell used the example of Mike Tyson to state that you wouldn’t allow to appear in a debate, or any debate to which you would give a platform, an individual who made others feel unsafe. Again, this is true within reason (bearing in mind the subjectivity of who people might feel ‘unsafe’ around), but since Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist this is a good example.
Squirrell had extended the principle however, to include ‘representation’ of all the relevant sides of the controversy, and faulted the OSFL debate on this basis. This coincides with the main substantial point made by the OUSU WomCam, and so I’ll return to it later when dealing with their articulations of the same point (skip forward 39 paragraphs, including quotes, to see how).
3) “Where the debate takes place.”
Squirrell went on to argue that whilst universities are places of intellectual debate and exploration, they are also the homes of students, and no-one should be made to feel ‘unsafe’ in their home. So, universities being facilitators of debate and discussion takes second place for Squirrell to their pastoral duties of care to their students.
Certainly, it’s true that those two roles must be balanced sensibly, but this again has absolutely no realistic bearing on the issue at hand. If all that is happening in a university setting is that a debate is taking place, then no normal, mentally-well person is going to be made to feel ‘unsafe’ by the presence of an intellectual exchange, which they are not obliged to attend, that simply happens to be on the same premises as where they eat and sleep. This could not realistically be taken as a point that the OSFL debate would somehow fail.
If some students did report feeling ‘unsafe’, then that would be a case for their receiving help for what would be an unreasonable reaction to other people’s strongly held opinions. Similarly, it would be unreasonable, and unworkable, for every university with on-site accommodation to close down every debate or event that gave one of their students negative ‘unsafe’ feelings.
4) “What is debated.”
Squirrell asserted quite sensibly that you wouldn’t have a debate about whether miscegenation is right or wrong, or whether we should euthanise gays. All true, but also completely irrelevant as Squirrell does not argue that abortion is an issue comparable to those extreme cases, and indeed uses the hypothetical motion ‘This House would ban sex-selective abortions’ as a debate with which he would be happy.
5) “How to frame it.”
Here, Squirrell gave the second of his only two direct criticisms of the OSFL debate, focusing on the style of the motion, which presumably he thought would be justification (even though it wasn’t cited as a reason) for Christ Church withdrawing permission for OSFL to debate on its premises:
“‘This House believes abortion culture harms us all’ is an irresponsible and frankly bad motion. It presumes that something called ‘abortion culture’ exists, itself a loaded proposition, and then also presumes that it is prevalent in our society.”
This is rubbish, as the motion assumes nothing of the sort, and if Squirrell thinks that it does then he hasn’t given the motion (or the nature of debate) proper consideration. The motion is a hypothetical that can be opposed in one of two ways: either by accepting that ‘abortion culture’ exists and defending it, or by denying that it exists altogether and thus also denying the motion in its entirety. This very latter course is one that apparently never occurred to Squirrell, but in fact was precisely the course that the radical abortion lobbyist O’Neill had planned to take.
In any case, even if the motion were as poor as Squirrell though it to be, that on its own would not justify the censoring of the debate. It would simply justify people turning up to the debate, criticising the motion, and having it defeated on the grounds of its bias.
Absolutely none of the five considerations that Squirrell gave then, justified the stopping of speech in the OSFL case, and indeed properly considering them should have brought him to the very opposite conclusion to which he came. So far from telling us what freedom of speech really means, all he really demonstrated was that he failed to properly think through the relevant issues.
Just as bad as these apologia for mob-provoked procedural censorship however, was the more developed moral case given by the WomCam and their supporters. The arguments proposed for protesting and banning the OSFL debate are given primarily in their statement, and the description of their protest event page (now on the Buzzfeed page), and to a lesser extent by McIntyre and others in media reports. As with their Cantabrigian comrades, it’s worth interrogating (in order to better answer) their views. For when we do, we find a familiar litany of formal logical fallacies, and a consistent constellation of illiberal, error-ridden, and rhetorically-abusive tactics on which student abortion lobbyists rely in order to shut down speech, and even discussion, on campus:
Straw-Manning the Debate, Non Sequiturs, and/or Begging The Question
These three have to be summarised together, as they are so intertwined. The protest description facetiously caricatured the debate as being:
“… on whether people with uteruses deserve to have any choice over their own bodies”, whereas the WomCam statement claimed that the debate was “about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies.”
Now, if the debate had been a debate about the rights and wrongs of abortion, this would simply be a tediously typical, irrational, and reductive mischaracterisation of the issue. Abortion can only be centrally about a woman’s body if we assume that her unborn child has no moral status as a person. The unborn child does have such a moral status however, by virtue of her humanity (as I argue here, from 22:41 onwards), and thus abortion is not primarily about her mother’s right to bodily autonomy. For what anyone does with their body is morally and legally limited by the effect it has on others (my autonomous right to move my hand forcefully through the air ceases if it meets your face). Right-To-Lifers thus do not take a position on whether other people should have choice over, or tell people what they should be doing with, their own bodies. Rather, they argue that no-one should be destroying the bodies of other vulnerable living human beings. At the very least then, this would be an abortion lobbyist’s begging of the central question due to the need for brevity.
The debate was not, however, about the abortion issue, but about abortion culture. The WomCam summary therefore constitutes a complete misreading of the OSFL debate. The motion under discussion was ‘This House believes that abortion culture harms us all’, and the brief event blurb OSFL gave was:
“Last year in Britain, over 185,000 abortions were carried out. What does this say about our national culture? Is it a sign of equality, or does it suggest we treat human life carelessly?”
This was not then, a debate about whether abortion ought to be legal, but about the effects of legalised abortion on culture. Either the Women’s Campaign did not read the debate description, did not understand it, or deliberately chose to set up a straw-man, by misidentifying it as something that it’s not. Yet the caricatures continued, as the statement claimed:
“The event description seems to suggest that increased access to abortion contributes to a ‘culture’ of ‘[treating] human life carelessly’. Framing the debate in these pro-life terms denies people autonomy over the choices they make regarding their own bodies.”
This is obvious nonsense. As we saw, the event description does not “suggest” (as in prescribe) that increased access to abortion contributes to a ‘culture’ of ‘[treating] human life carelessly’. It asks whether the fact that 185,000 abortions occur every year suggests that we treat human life carelessly, precisely as a matter for debate.
Meanwhile, even if OSFL had framed the debate in the terms that the WomCam incorrectly imagines, this would not entail any denial of anyone’s “autonomy over the choices they make regarding their own bodies”. Not merely because the abortion lobby mischaracterise the issue (as explained above), but because even if they did not, there is no logical connection between saying that legalised abortion has negative cultural effects and denying bodily autonomy. To assert that it does is simply a non sequitur – the one simply does not follow from the other. It would be quite consistent, for example, for an advocate of legalised abortion to candidly admit that this situation nevertheless has some unfortunate social consequences. That the WomCam do not see this at the very least implies a severe limitation in their intellectual imaginations. Yet as the straw-man grew, the non sequiturs multiplied, as the WomCam stated:
“The implication of the phrasing of the debate is that abortion is not a right for all people, which puts the blame on those who can get pregnant for having sex. This shames those people, further stigmatising abortion and contributing to a culture of misogyny and body policing.”
Again, this is confused codswallop. The debate title and blurb do not touch upon the rightness or wrongness of legalised abortion, but take the fact that abortion is legalised as a given. The phrasing of the debate therefore neither explicitly nor implicitly denies the (as it happens, erroneous) idea of a right to an abortion. Further, even if it did, the idea that there is no right to an abortion in no way “blames” those who get pregnant for having sex. Asserting the right to life in no way involves believing that either sex nor pregnancy are ‘blame-worthy’ or ‘shame-worthy’ things.
Perhaps what the WomCam meant by ‘blame’ is the belief that pregnancy is the consequence of sex, and thus people who have sex and get pregnant should accept responsibility for their actions. If so, such a belief need not involve either ‘blaming’ or ‘shaming’ others for sex or pregnancy. This is just yet another non sequitur. So, denying the so-called ‘right to abortion’ certainly does ‘stigmatise’ abortion in implying that it’s wrong, but not through the means the WomCam suggested.
Moreover, such stigma certainly does not necessarily lead either to ‘misogyny’ or ‘body policing’, since believing that abortion kills an unborn child involves no hatred of women, or a desire to ‘police’ (control) their bodies. Again, at best, the arguments for the connections between these statements are simply not made, and thus this is all mere question-begging. Yet the WomCam were not yet done, even with that:
“Hosting this event also takes away from the work being done to reduce stigma surrounding abortions and to promote access to abortion clinics for those who need them.”
Certainly, hosting a debate that questions abortion culture could indeed be contrary to attempts to de-stigmatise and promote it. That either should happen however, or that Oxford University and its students should want it to, is assumed, not argued. This again begs the very question more broadly under discussion, and cannot be a forceful argument for the OSFL, whom the WomCam demand not only cancel the debate, but apologise for organising it in the first place! The blatant illiberalism within this question begging is revealed in their concluding paragraph:
“We also support those within Christ Church who are working to stop the event going ahead. However, if it does, we encourage everyone who can to go along to the disruptive protest… to let the speakers and the organisers know that the Oxford community will not support giving a platform to those espousing antiquated views about reproductive rights.”
Once again, the WomCam simply didn’t get that the debate wasn’t about the abortion issue per se, the speakers (only one of whom – Tim Stanley – supports the right to life of the unborn) would not therefore be formally espousing any views on whether it should be legal. Even if it were, that the WomCam feel they and their supporters have the right to dictate what the Oxford Community as a whole thinks, or to determine what is or is not ‘antiquated’, is gross presumption of the worst kind. They want to beg the question not only for themselves, but for everyone else.
Just as appalling, however, as this shameless censoriousness is the primary fallacy in their campaign, as they passed from attacking the debate to the speakers themselves.
Ad Hominem (Poisoning The Well, with Thought-Terminating Clichés, and a little Red Herring)
The full story here requires some explanation, so I apologise if the exploration of student political ideology and rhetoric gets slightly tiresome.
The protest description begins by using a ‘Content Note’ (‘CN’). CNs are small summaries before a text that alert a reader to content that they might find offensive or distressing. They developed in much student leftist writing out of the practice of using a ‘Trigger Warning’ (TW). Both practices started out reasonably as ‘harm reduction’ techniques – a means of sensitively protecting often vulnerable people. It was thought that victims of assault or abuse, and who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), might find themes in literature such as sexual violence a ‘trigger’ for a panic attack, and thus a warning would allow them to avoid distress.
This however, was soon abused, as TWs started to be used to label literature with which some people simply disagreed. They thus functioned as a censor label, terminating thought by discouraging the reading of certain offensive ideas. The abuse has been critiqued in the New Statesman, the Guardian, and the Telegraph, and various other problems accrued to TWs: their being patronising, pointless given the randomness of triggers for panic attacks, and the possibility of TWs themselves (or the very word ‘trigger’ for victims of gun violence!) becoming a trigger. It was suggested that they be replaced by CNs, which instead would simply, and non-patronisingly, alert readers to content they may wish to avoid.
Yet CNs carry the very same potential for abuse as TWs, and so we see this in the WomCam protest description, where a CN was used to pre-judge the debate as containing “really s****y anti-choice rhetoric and probs some cissexism”. Beyond the lazy and churlish vulgarity, the WomCam oddly suggested the debate would likely contain “cissexism” (pronounced ‘sis-sexism’), a synonym for ‘transphobia’ and defined by wikipedia as “the assumption that, due to human sexual differentiation, one’s gender [i.e. sexual identity, as opposed to biological sex] is determined solely by… [being] male or female, and that trans people are inferior to cis people, being in ‘defiance of nature’)”. The term ‘cis’ signifying someone who is male and who identifies as a man, or female and who identifies as a woman, as opposed to being ‘trans’ (someone who, whilst born as a man or woman, does not sexually identify with their biological sex, and who self-defines differently to it).
At this point, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with the debate WomCam were opposing. The answer is: virtually nothing. Especially given that there is no reason (given the debate title and description) to suspect that any discussion of sexual identity would have occurred, the opponents of the OSFL debate here simply gratuitously imported identity politics to do with transsexualism into a discussion surrounding a debate on abortion.
Their doing so is what is known as a ‘red herring’ – an irrelevant diversion that misses the point of what is being discussed altogether. In this case, it functions to prejudice people against the debate, and the speakers, by dismissing their views through caricature: “They’re ‘cissexists’! (And thus unworthy of being listened to.)”
Related to this, the WomCam also referred to Stanley and O’Neill as “cis-gender men”, and in their protest description “cis-guys”. This was, however, relevant to their fundamental argument, as was explained by the comments reported of Charlotte Sykes, editor of a feminist ‘zine’, who criticised the OSFL debate by asking:
“Why are both the speakers (apparently) cis-men? They will never have to directly experience an abortion and so are speaking for a group of people they do not represent. Another example of decisions about women’s bodies being outsourced to men…”
What this means then is that a ‘cis-man’, as a male who has always been biologically male (because they have always been comfortable identifying as one, and thus never gone for ‘sex-reassignment therapy’), will never have had the chance to go through pregnancy, or abortion. Unlike a transsexual who was a woman, and therefore could have undergone pregnancy and abortion, before they became a man.
This anticipated the primary fallacy of the WomCam case, made clear as the more central objection against the speakers: that they are “two men journalists”. The WomCam statement claimed that:
“… [b]y only giving a platform to these men, OSFL are participating in a culture where reproductive rights are limited and policed by people who will never experience needing an abortion.”
Whereas Niamh McIntyre argued:
“Instead of inviting women to speak, the group decided that two men — Timothy Stanley and Brendan O’Neil — and were better placed to discuss the issue. They thought it was appropriate to let men discuss if and when women should be able to make fundamental decisions about their own bodies. Neither will ever have to consider having an abortion. As you can imagine, those of us with uteruses were incredibly angry that they were able to speak for and over us… as a woman, I objected to men telling me what I should be allowed to do with my own body.”
Meanwhile Tim Squirrell argued that OSFL violated the necessity of representation mentioned earlier on, as:
“Part of the problem with the OSFL debate was that the speaker panel was entirely men, who have had and will have no experience of the physical and emotional ramifications of abortion or its restriction. In seeking to run a good debate, we try to make sure that those who have the most stake in it are represented on the panel.”
Taking all this together, yet again the question is begged about abortion and supposed ‘reproductive rights’, and at the risk of repeating myself ad nauseam: the debate had nothing to do with the abortion issue, decisions about uteruses, or ‘policing’ anything. Here however, the larger fallacy is given: that men have no right to talk against abortion because they will never experience one, or a need for one.
So much is so wrong with this that it’s honestly quite hard to see how any thinking person could hold to it. Obviously, the debate was to be about the effects of legalised abortion on culture, which involves and affects men as well as women. Directly speaking to the WomCam’s argument though, is it really true that someone can only talk about a topic that they have the potential to experience? Can we not talk about human rights abuses in North Korea because we’re not North Korean (or subject to the depredations of the regime of Kim Jong-un)? Can we not debate environmental damage on the other side of the globe because it doesn’t happen in our country, and because we aren’t directly or indirectly affected ourselves? Of course not. We are part of the same planet, and we share the same humanity, and so out of sheer solidarity and care for the common good we have the right to debate issues that affect the world and our fellow humans.
If the concern is empathy for a given situation, with the idea that men cannot completely imagine what unplanned pregnancy or abortion is like (of course men certainly can mentally simulate the panic of unplanned pregnancy, the sadness of a loss of a child, and even some of the radical physicality of pregnancy itself), this is based on a fundamental error: that complete empathy with any given situation is necessary for a moral evaluation of that situation to be valid. Quite obviously, it is not.
Most of us will (hopefully) never fully understand what it’s like to be tortured, to be persecuted by a totalitarian regime, to go through a terminal illness, or to live in a slum. Nevertheless, we are able to form cogent and valid opinions on those contexts, and what to do about them.
Being able to fully imagine and empathise with an experience may be important for certain human interactions and activities. Forming a rational argument is not one of them. The only things necessary to have a valid opinion on abortion, or other human rights abuses, or the environment, or war, or any matter of morality, law, or public policy, are: the ability to reason and an appreciation of the evidence. Both men, and women, have equal access to both those things, and it is frankly (and for the OUSU WomCam, hypocritically) sexist to suggest otherwise.
Neither being personally invested in a particular issue, nor being potentially directly or even indirectly affected by it, nor even being able to fully empathise with it, is necessary to have a valid opinion on something. This is why we have opinions all the time on healthcare, education, foreign policy, and crime, despite not being doctors or patients, teachers or students, soldiers or victims of war, policemen or victims of crime. As Timothy Stanley so rightly summarised:
“The idea that an ethical issue can only be debated by the people directly affected by it is self-evidently unintelligent.”
Having said all of this it would be wrong to not note further that, as a matter of fact, men are invested in, and affected by, abortion. Men become fathers when they conceive a child with a woman, and often suffer loss when a pregnancy is miscarried. Indeed, when a child is conceived, all those related to her are affected in some way. Not just fathers, but brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, and others. By virtue of being in a family, even if it is only the human family, everyone has the right to a negative view on abortion, regardless of their sex.
The denial of the legitimacy of male opinions on this issue then, is hopelessly irrational. The reason it is so perennial however, is that it forms a fallacious but very useful rhetorical tactic for the abortion lobby, known as ‘poisoning the well’. This is a form of ad hominem – quite literally, ‘to the man’ – argumentation, in which the arguments of a speaker are not dealt with directly, but dismissed on the grounds of some irrelevant detail of their person or identity (e.g. their race, sex, political allegiance, religion, etc.). Usually, this amounts to a kind of prejudice, as we saw in the sexism of the WomCam argumentation.
This fallacy is so explicit that it often needs to be dressed up in more sophisticated clothing by the claim that certain voices, particularly those identified as particularly vulnerable groups, need to be protected through privilege. By way of a more common illustration, we see this very commonly in the persistent reminder to ‘check your privilege’.
Like ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘content notes’, ‘check your privilege’ started out as a very reasonable idea. It involved humbly bearing in mind the limits of your own experience, and how this might affect your appreciation and concern for the darker or harder aspects of human life more widely. Higher social privilege (i.e. lesser likelihood to experience poverty or unjust discrimination because of your skin colour, sex, sexual orientation, class, etc.) often means lower epistemic privilege on harsh realities (i.e. knowledge of poverty or unjust discrimination). So, checking your privilege meant those who knew they had a socially privileged background at least being open to listening to those who, by virtue of their privilege in society, could tell them something of areas about which they were less knowledgeable.
What ‘check your privilege’ turned into, however, was a thought-terminating cliché. It often became abused by speakers to shut down or disregard the speech of anyone considered more privileged than them, or who disagreed with a particular argument or viewpoint taken by those who appoint themselves as defenders of the less privileged. This has been abused so commonly that it is now long since been frequently parodied in conversation, even by those who may broadly sympathise with the aims of the group or person using it.
As we saw in McIntyre’s presentation, this is exactly what the WomCam chose to do. Since they assumed (though question-begging), that their support for legalised abortion is better for women and minorities, they poisoned the well against the speakers in the OSFL debate (even though ten seconds worth of serious research could have told them that Brendan O’Neill is radically in favour of legalised abortion – with no limits!) to prejudice minds against them purely on the grounds of their sex.
Whether the OUSU WomCam and their supporters, or their allies in the rest of the abortion lobby, are actually aware of the many erroneous forms of argumentation and rhetoric they employ – whether formal fallacies or abuses of otherwise sound concepts – we cannot know. It maybe that they aren’t cognisant of what they’re doing, or that they are and see it simply as a means to a higher end. Regardless, it behoves the rest of us to note, point out, and condemn these manoeuvres whenever we see them used.
For just as in the previous Cambridge controversies, they constitute a disturbing and dangerous illiberalism that not only justifies the shutting down of speech by procedural artifice, but the chilling of speech by anti-intellectual clichés, attacks on their opponents, and language used to raise heat and prevent the shedding of real light.
Here perhaps is the most salient thing to notice about such sordid politics: This isn’t feminism. This is fauxminism. Not an authentic concern for sexual equality and the welfare of women (for that you must look elsewhere), but a mockery of the real thing that chokes open and honest intellectual enquiry with the fumes of its own unwittingly ironic intolerance. Whether that be in the abusive – and possibly illegal – employment of identity politics to provoke the paternalistic policing of speech (by falsely accusing others of “policing bodies”), or in a puritanical protest against a debate on abortion culture that simply served to illustrate exactly what abortion culture is, in all its coercive callousness.
Peter D. Williams is Executive Officer at Right To Life.
(1) D. A. J. Richards, Free Speech and the Politics of Identity (Oxford: OUP, 1999), pg. 242.
(2) Ibid., pg. 237.