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Free speech and genuine questioning: Is the Oxford Union failing us?

Jonathan Tiley expresses disappointment over the Oxford Union's handling of Peter Singer's record of ableist comments.

Engaging in discussion, challenging ideas, and hopefully in the end creating a better society is a worthy goal that we should all aspire to. However, it seems to me that a large and important section of our society is being left out of the conversation and conveniently ignored.

On Tuesday I attended a talk at the Oxford Union by the moral philosopher Peter Singer, and left feeling frustrated and angry and asking the question “Surely, we can and must do better?”

In the 1970s Peter Singer wrote that it would be ‘‘right to kill’’ a disabled infant, because their death “will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life’’. He has proclaimed that the effects of Down’s syndrome on his own child would “greatly reduce my joy in raising [them]”. He also argues that someone with a cognitive impairment would be incapable of “withholding informed consent to sexual relations”. Singer has since stood by these degrading views, saying to The New Yorker in 2021 that his opinions regarding disability “haven’t fundamentally changed”.

You may feel repulsed by these views, or you may agree with them; you may feel both at once. In any case, I hope you would agree that they should be challenged. The obligation to challenge these views is even stronger when their representative speaks at the Oxford Union, a self-proclaimed bastion of free speech and rigorous debate. The same principles which protect his expression of such views require the Union to challenge them.

Representatives of the Union woefully failed to meet this duty. On the night, I was given a taste of what was to come when a packed-out chamber enthusiastically welcomed Singer and, to my surprise, I received quizzical looks for not joining in on the applause. These quizzical looks intensified after, being denied the opportunity to ask a question, I heckled Singer with disgust over the ‘soft-ball questions’. Singer was asked a series of important and well-researched questions on other fields he is known for, such as animal rights and effective altruism. However, his views on disability were left entirely untouched.

The Oxford Union failed to uphold its reputation for asking the difficult questions, and in doing so, it failed the disabled community. Like myself, many would have left the talk horrified that an institution such as the Oxford Union allowed this man, who openly holds what are in my opinion abhorrent views, to speak without having his position on the rights of disabled people challenged. It was shameful that Singer’s advocacy for ‘replacing’ disabled children with able-bodied children and its eugenicist connotations was not examined.

When other speakers with controversial views on minorities have attended, they have faced fierce dispute. Tommy Robinson and Jordan Peterson were made to fight for their intellectual lives over past comments on Muslims and women respectively. What is different about the disabled community that makes our voices less important to the Union than other minorities?

So, answering my question “Is the Union failing us?”, on Tuesday night, I left the Oxford Union as a disabled student with the feeling it sadly is. We must strive to make sure that this isn’t a reflection of the wider student body and public debate regarding the status and rights of disabled people.

Image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (NATO Multimedia Library/NIDS)

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