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Socratic Society in free speech spat after debate cancellation

Izzie Alexandrou reports on the controversy sparked by the cancelled abortion debate.

The Oxford Socratic Society, a forum for discussing philosophical questions, has been embroiled in a free speech row after cancelling a debate on the ethics of abortion. The motion, “Is abortion before 24 weeks unethical?” was set to be debated last Friday.

In a Facebook post, Socratic Society announced that they would not be able to facilitate a “valid and safe environment” in which to host the discussion. The decision came after a number of people contacted the Society to object to the motion.

The President of the Society, Tom Martland, advised that the Welfare officer should chair the debate; she is the only woman on committee. He told Cherwell: “as someone with a uterus, it seemed much more appropriate that she should shape the discussion.”

However, following the concerns raised, the Welfare officer and reps became unhappy with the debate going ahead. When asked why the committee agreed to change the proposed motion, Martland told Cherwell: “The Treasurer, Secretary, and I all agreed that, without a suitable chair, and with no welfare support in place, things should not go ahead.” According to Martland, the main concern with hosting the debate was that it would “ignor[e] the voices of those who had been elected to represent silenced individuals.

Based on the very specific circumstances before us, I felt (and still feel) that it was the right decision to change the motion.”

The vote to change the motion was not unanimous, however; committee member Sebastian Pearson told Cherwell: “While I understand the committee’s concerns, I don’t think that closing down dialogue is the best solution, especially on an issue that directly affects 1/3 of UK women and indirectly impacts almost everyone.

Even the former CEO of BPAS, a leading UK abortion provider, tweeted to condemn our announcement and emphasized the importance of open discussion.”

In the above-mentioned tweet, Ann Furedi, the former CEO of BPAS, said: “Conversations with those who think differently to ourselves are challenging in the best of ways. I know I learn with every debate I have.”

Furedi, who has spoken on this issue before, claims that “we need to challenge, debate and convince – not ignore those against us.”

Although Martland stressed that the cancellation did not mean that the society endorsed censorship or avoidance of difficult questions, the Facebook announcement attracted significant criticism of these exact issues.  Many Society members addressed the troubling implications and raised questions about the importance of debating controversial topics.

One commenter questioned what would be required for a “valid and safe” discussion to take place. “If Socratic Society, a society designed for debating, doesn’t feel it can facilitate a valid environment for this debate, it begs the question who can?”

Another commenter argued that the decision went against the “spirit of the society.

Socrates pursued the truth to the very end. For its namesake, SocSoc should do so likewise – no question should be off limits.”

Martland, commenting on the Facebook post, described this idea of the “spirit” of the society as “mythic.” Alex O’Connor, an ex-president, and co-founder of Socratic Society, who is also known as the YouTuber “CosmicSkeptic”, said that Martland’s comment was somewhat upsetting: “The reason I was involved in founding the society is because I felt like it did owe something to its members – a place to discuss ethical issues with a focus on the ones which are most important.”

When asked about the precedent that the cancellation of the motion sets, O’Connor told Cherwell: “Without an explicit explanation of what conditions would be better, it leaves a lot of room for future committees to look back at the incident and interpret it as a red line around the subject.”

The cancellation of the official Socratic Society event did not prevent members meeting from discussing the motion. The event took place at the same time as the official Socratic Society debate. Organised by O’Connor, the debate was popular, with around 20 participants. Of the group who met, 50% of attendees were women, with 50% of attendees identifying as ‘pro-life’ and 50% identifying as ‘pro-choice’. O’Connor stresses that this outcome of an equal split was not created by design.  

Martland, while commenting on the competing event told Cherwell: “I’m just somewhat frustrated that the people involved saw things so one-sidedly.

“Holding it simultaneously seems to me to tell the women involved in SocSoc as organisers that they are fighting a losing battle.”

The controversy raises questions about the future of the society. According to O’Connor, Socratic Society should commit to reconsidering the motion, and state the specific conditions under which a safe environment can be facilitated. That way, the society can make clear that cancellation was no infringement on freedom of speech. Refusing to indicate the conditions under which such a debate could be held indicate an implicit unwillingness to discuss controversial subjects, which would ultimately “go against the ethos of what the society was founded on.”

When asked under what circumstances a debate like this should take place under, Martland told Cherwell: “I cannot pretend to know exactly the thresholds and dynamics required to hold the discussion in the right way, but I am fairly certain that this situation didn’t meet them.

“After all, the point is to listen, and to understand, where our own understanding is limited: all of the women ever involved in organising SocSoc were telling us that this shouldn’t go ahead.

I hope that, in future, we will be more able to consider and make suitable the exact circumstances under which we hold a discussion like this.”

Regardless of what happened, O’Connor, co-founder and ex-President made clear the society must clarify, in a transparent way, how they will create this “valid and safe environment”. A failure to do so could undermine the fundamental justification of Socratic society; a place to hold challenging, ethical debates.

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