By now, you might be aware that on Wednesday an academic called Kathleen Stock will be speaking at the Oxford Union. This has sparked something of a furore. Stock’s very publicly held views on transgender issues and debates – like whether trans minors should or should not be protected from conversion therapy (should not, apparently) – have prompted motions of condemnation from JCRs and constituted the backdrop for the Student Union’s acrimonious break-up with the Union.

(The University has since overturned the SU’s banning of the Union from the Freshers’ Fair, a decision attributed to Pro-Vice-Chancellor Martin Williams and described in The Daily Telegraph).

This is, of course, a DEFCON 1 instance of cancel culture. But fret not, the precise segment of the English press you would expect has responded with appropriate levels of frothing at the mouth. 

The Telegraph published an article titled “The Oxford Union will never surrender to cancel culture”. Yes, and once more unto the breach, once more! The piece itself was entirely unsurprising: “Almost exactly 200 years ago today…authorities prevented true freedom of speech…so young students…the world’s most famous debating society…”, and it was paint by numbers from there. 

Apart from a suggestive use of “our 200th year” close to the end, nothing in the article indicates that its author, James Price, is both a former Union President and currently serving as Chairman of the Bicentenary Committee. You might remember the Bicentenary Committee on account of Michael Li, who also sits on it, the former president who signed the Union’s agreement in principle with that august offshoot of the Saudi Arabian crown, the FII Institute.

The Union’s founding mission is an important one and its past is remarkable. Some debates have been historic, so have some addresses, and the list of past presidents is a catalogue of great figures. Hence, it is profoundly sad to look at the place in its current state.  

In his president’s welcome, the TT23 executive, Matthew Dick, manages to squeeze a few phrases in between the free speech pieties: (“open forum”, “empathetic dialogue” (x2), etc). He writes: “This term I hope to provoke discussions on some of the most fundamental questions of our generation”, and chooses as his first example: “how should gender self-identification be rectified with society and law[?]”. 

Question number two, by the way, is “can war in pursuit of the extension of democracy be morally justified[?]”. 

Kathleen Stock is the only speaker on the termcard even tangentially related to the gender self-ID debate, of allegedly “fundamental” importance. To a cynic, therefore, it seems that Kathleen Stock has been invited to manufacture controversy and court publicity. 

Consider the predictability of everything that has happened so far: the Oxford Union invited a controversial speaker, people got upset and expressed it, the Union positioned itself as the “last bastion of free speech”, and the national right-wing press dutifully printed right-wing fantasies about resisting creeping wokeism. 

On account of this conflict, the Union has achieved better publicity outside of Oxford than it could have ever hoped for; better publicity than the body has any right to expect. The SU’s motion for financial independence from the Union has been presented nationally as being in direct response to Kathleen Stock’s invitation to speak; presented, that is, as an attempted cancellation. 

Take the recent Oxford academics’ letter, breathlessly reported on, which opens: “We wholeheartedly condemn the decision of the Oxford University Student Union (Oxford SU) to sever its ties with the Oxford Union (the Union) after the latter’s refusal to rescind an invitation to the philosopher and gender-critical feminist Kathleen Stock.”

It does not matter that nowhere in the SU’s motion is Stock mentioned, and that no relevant officer of the SU has been quoted linking Stock to the motion – though they have been quoted linking it to the Union’s agreement in principle with the FII Institute. Nor does it matter that the SU sent out an email explicitly denying any links between Stock and their cutting of ties.

So, why have the right-wing papers and the Union promoted composites of misunderstanding and disingenuity? Well, it suits the papers to open a new front in the university culture wars, and it suits the Union to present itself as a martyr rather than what the SU actually believes it to be, namely, a “toxic environment which seems to encourage bullying, harassment, racial profiling and a systemic abuse of power.”

The Union is not only profiting from the controversy metaphorically, but also financially. On May 17th, the organisation tweeted: “As the chilling effects of censorship on university campuses show no signs of dissipating, we are grateful for the many messages of encouragement. You can support our mission to uphold #freespeech – without interruption and without interference” followed by a link to the Union’s “donate now” page. 

Yes, of course free speech advocates are right when they argue that nebulous accounts of ‘harm’ are not axiomatically more important than free and open debate. Being challenged is sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes hurtful, and very often necessary. 

But, if a debating chamber is going to platform a speaker who is solely and exclusively known for their attacks on one group and one group only, a speaker whose presence is stridently opposed by the overwhelming majority of said community, then there had better be a very good reason for doing so. And in this case, it is not at all clear what that reason is. 

“Free speech” alone does not cut it, because free speech is not a pillar of revealed truth. It is a core tenet of an open and democratic society, but it is not the only tenet. Occasionally, free speech will clash with other values and practices which we also cherish. At that point, conflicting goods need to be weighed against one another. 

We all know this. We know this because we recognise the logic of, say, hate speech laws, logic which holds that a person’s ability to say what they choose does not supersede the bodily safety of minority groups. 

The existence of both hate speech and the totally acceptable realm in which most speech exists implies a spectrum of speech. It therefore also implies a point at which speech can be sanctioned socially rather than legally. This is not cultural Marxism, this is not woke nonsense, it is the necessary burden of coexisting democratically. 

There are no easy answers here, nor are there hard and fast rules which can be applied to resolve the matter satisfactorily for all. Twee as it is to say, the only path, now and in future, runs through open and good faith communication.

The bitter irony then is that the Union, and the right-wing media which has rallied to its defence, has no interest in this more difficult dialogue, preferring instead to squat behind a narrowly defined and poorly comprehended conception of “free speech”, and to shout at the shadows in their imaginations. 

The Union released a statement which reiterated the rights of its members to “question and challenge” Kathleen Stock by asking her not only a question, but also a follow-up. Well alright, this is preferable to no accountability. But, everyone who has seen a clip of Ben Shapiro spew fallacious nonsense at some college event knows how the bully pulpit actually operates.

The speaker who has the microphone, has the luxury of speaking for as long as they choose, has the stage, and has the cameras trained on them holds a colossal advantage. The choreography alone conveys a status differential – if you’ve ever watched a clip titled something like “Kathleen Stock DESTROYS radical trans activist!”, then you’ll know what I mean. 

By literally platforming Stock, the Union will lend her an automatic credence, irrespective of the strength of her arguments. It is naive to think otherwise. When an address is posted to the Union’s 1.79 million YouTube subscribers – and I hazard this one will be – the effect of the pageantry is legitimation. 

The Union is stacking the deck in favour of Stock and then pretending to be neutral. But the Chamber’s prestige is also its responsibility. Sometimes responsibility means hosting speakers whose views will cause offence, but not purely for the sake of it, and never at the expense of every other valid consideration. 

Kathleen Stock’s invitation is a stunt, an attention-grabbing ploy by an institution short on cash and ideas, trading on its past glories like some French émigré in 1790s London. Playing to the gods, the Union has reframed a series of reactionary and unnecessary decisions as virtuous sacrifices. 

Now, to the national media, the Oxford Union is the martyr, another victim of another attempted cancellation. All the reasonable objections raised in the past few weeks – bullying, harassment, discrimination, links to the Saudi crown, the motivations and impacts of inviting Stock – have been completely occluded. Beneath the shine, however, the body is creaking. Perhaps rumours of structural weakness in the roof of the Union buildings supply the perfect metaphor.