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The Open Society? Freedom on Campus for Right-To-Life Student Activism

by Peter D. Williams

This weekend, the Battle of Ideas Festival will be held in London at the Barbican. From politics to ethics, technology to art, debates are held over two days on a wide range of questions, between interesting speakers of varying and opposing views, in a celebration of that vibrant intellectual exchange which forms part of the joy of being human.

Miserabile dictu, the reason why such events are so remarkable and refreshing is that the receptive attitude to controversy and disagreement that they exemplify, and the opportunity to hear so many rigorous and intelligent discussions that they give, is often an exception rather than the rule. Perversely, this can be especially true on university campuses, where such debate should most especially be found, but where limitations on controversial speech and activism can be most frequently employed.

One of the most common groups that fall victim to this are right-to-life student societies. From Cardiff, to Bristol, to University College London, students who want to advocate for the dignity of all human beings are (at least attemptedly) discriminated against by their union through ‘pro-choice’ motions, or else ill-treated by their opponents.

The latest example of the latter was the recent controversy over the alleged bullying and intimidatory actions of a feminist group against the Cambridge Students For Life (CSFL) stall at the Cambridge University Students Union (CUSU) Freshers’ Fair. Although the feminists accused CSFL of aggression simply for being there, CSFL’s statement to the Varsity newspaper (which went unpublished) reported:

The only aggression came from supporters of the Women’s Campaign. They stole our leaflets and stationery, blockaded our stall, lied about their identity, broke CUSU regulations, put up misleading “trigger warnings”, refused to retract lies about our stall when asked by the CUSU President and harassed our volunteers, the vast majority of whom were women, ironically. A female volunteer returned home in tears after a day of bullying from the Women’s Campaign.

Aside from the grossly hypocritical nature of these actions per se – intimidating women with whom they disagree is apparently uniquely OK for some who claim to campaign for women – they also brought to light again the disturbingly illiberal approach to freedom of speech held by many in the student abortion lobby. In conjunction with their reporting on the issue, Varsity also published an op-ed piece with the anaemic title ‘It’s just not OK’ by their Interview Editor, an abortion lobby supporter called Hesham Mashhour. He proceeded to argue that, uniquely amongst all student societies, the CSFL should have been barred from having a stall at the Freshers’ Fair, and indeed that they should never have been registered as a society in the first place.

What’s noteworthy about this is not merely that Mashhour argued for closing down speech on a procedural level, but the way in which he justified this unjust discrimination on a moral level: by a mixture of poisoning the well and question-begging. This wasn’t merely opposition to free speech, this was a show-case of attitudes that disable free thought and discussion themselves.

Mashhour caricatured the CSFL as a mere religious campaign, simply on the grounds that their co-presidents happened to be practising Catholics. Whilst it’s obvious that the religious affiliations (or lack thereof) of the leadership of an organisation tell us nothing necessarily about what motivates the campaign more generally,  Mashhour gratuitously and ironically insisted that any denial of his patently spurious reasoning was itself a ‘fallacy’. He went on to compare CSFL to groups like the BNP or EDL because, presumably like those groups, Mashhour thinks that it “discriminates, strips people of their rights and works to shame those who disagree with them”, mirroring his earlier claim that CSFL “discriminates against women, disregards bodily autonomy and pressures pregnant women into avoiding terminations”.

These claims are, of course, a mixture of un-evidenced libel (“shaming”; “pressure”), laughable hypocrisy (as if his own writing is not itself a shaming exercise against people with whom he disagrees), and baseless assumption of the very case it is incumbent upon him to make. Someone can only argue that affirming the dignity and right to life of every human being from conception to natural death, and thus opposing abortion, constitutes “[stripping] people of their rights”, and “[disregarding] bodily autonomy” if they presuppose there to be a right to abortion, and that the unborn child has no right to life. Mashhour never even tries to justify that belief, but simply takes it for granted, asserting that the very questioning of a “right to terminate” is “just not OK”.

This is at best lazy, at worst dishonest, and in any case cannot be the basis for denying a student society a freshers’ fair stall, or to be a society in the first place: student unions cannot impose the moral views of one segment of students on another segment without engaging in gross discrimination and chilling of speech. Yet despite his own authoritarian tendencies, Mashhour has the shameless gall, if not a profound lack of self-awareness, to accuse the CSFL of “believ[ing] it is their duty to police this university in accordance with their own code of morality”.

None of this was anything new for Cambridge abortion lobbyists, who when I came to debate on the issue of abortion for disability in May, protested that such a debate was even happening in the first place. Their reasoning? That “whenever reproductive rights are debated, legitimacy is given to anti-choicers and we put our access to reproductive rights (which are already at risk, and always contested) in serious danger.” They went even further to argue in leaflets given to passers-by, that “Debate is a conversation of power, where the objective is to win: to overpower the other side. This is violence. It is not ‘discussion’.”

So, not only should supporters of legalised abortion never debate with their opponents, despite abortion being an issue that is controversial in society at large, because it might suggest that their point of view is ‘legitimate’ and might lead to them actually winning their case, but the intellectual exchange of debate itself, in which one side tries to show that the other is wrong, is an act of ‘violence’. It’s hard to think of a clearer apologetic for the closing of minds and the intellectually irresponsible (if not dishonest) self-insulation of a group of people from even the possibility that they could be mistaken. What a contrast to the CSFL, who organised a fair debate with another society, and had the openness and integrity to welcome contrary opinion rather than assume the rightness of their own case.

In the wake of this, Varsity previously as now gave Mashhour room for an op-ed piece in which he pre-judged the debate (having chosen not to actually attend it) as not a “serious exchange of opinion”. Why? Simply because the CSFL organised it in the first place, and despite the advertised involvement of Ann Furedi and Jane Fisher, two radical supporters of legalised abortion, for the abortion side. Again, Mashhour’s prejudice against those with whom he disagreed got in the way of any objective argument of consideration of the facts. The rest of the article again begged the question by assuming the purported right to abortion, and even that medical students should have the right to disagree with abortion or its legality.

It’s worth noting (and would be churlish not to) that Ann Furedi herself, one of the leaders of the abortion lobby in the U.K., decried the approach of her Cantabrigian comrades and others as “moral cowardice”, so there are prominent members of that movement who are truly liberal in their attitudes. What all of the above does illustrate, however, is a problem with many abortion lobbyists, even beyond the often ludicrous bubble of student politics: not only do they not want a debate, they apparently cannot even see that there is a debate to be had. So ideologically parochial and intellectually bigoted is their view of the world, that they have become incapable of even seeing how they may have gone wrong, or that there is a possibility of challenging their ideas and principles.

The consequence of this was shown by Mashhour: the basic respect for his opponents, a willingness to give them the benefit of the doubt and to listen to their views without importing his own presuppositions, was entirely absent from what passed for his ‘argument’. This can all properly be called ‘illiberal’, because it opposes the very conditions on which meaningful discussion and debate can truly be free in an open society, and thus led him to casually deny the right of his opponents even to speak and act as a student society at one of the best universities in the world.

Given this, it was a welcome development that last night the Cambridge Union voted down the motion, “This house believes that there is no place for pro-life societies at a Freshers’ Fair”, by a vote of acclamation (taken by registering ‘Aye’ or ‘Noe’ calls from the floor), the weight of which was apparently 70-30 in favour of the ‘Noe’ vote. This demonstrates that, at least for now, most students recognise the importance of freedom of discussion and activism being given for all students, and all of them should fight tooth-and-nail against any student union motion, or intra-student effort, that tries to compromise this. CSFL are to congratulated for their fortitude in doing so.

Unless and until, however, the nature of what debate that is allowed is also characterised by the fair-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, and fallacy-free argumentation of which much behaviour by student abortion lobby supporters is the very antithesis, a truly free, open, and fruitful discussion on matters of crucial human importance will remain out-of-reach. And that is what is truly ‘just not OK’.