This House Supports the UDS

Thoughts on the UDS’s most controversial debate yet.

The UDS has released the follow statement on the debate:

Public debate motions do not advocate action. All speeches made on the night will be satirical. The Union Debating Society unambiguously condemns political assassination or violence of any kind. Mocking Donald Trump’s blatantly offensive ideas is the only way we could find anyone to defend Trump in St Andrews and have a debate on the US election. Our intention was never to offend, the motion title is styled as a hyperbolic stance to generate debate. We expect the debate to centre whether it is legitimate to sacrifice our moral compasses and the sanctity of democracy in order to protect the world from a racist, xenophobic bigot. So far we’ve had no direct complaints from students or the public, and would encourage those concerned to email [email protected].

Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently (it’s deadline season, I won’t judge you), you’ll probably have heard of the recent stramash surrounding the St Andrews Union Debating Society. Put simply, the UDS is this week hosting a motion entitled “This House Would Assassinate President Trump.” And some people are very upset about it.

A national newspaper has run an article talking about the debate in reference to the assassination of Jo Cox MP. Local politicians have emerged to shake their heads and wring their hands over the motion. Even the University itself has condemned the motion as “in poor taste.” All very dramatic. But it shouldn’t be. Hopefully, this article will explain this latest storm in a St Andrean teacup, and why, precisely, it’s not worth getting worked up over. 

First of all, to understand this situation, you must understand the UDS. And to understand the UDS, you must understand its inherent ridiculousness. This is a society that starts every public debate with poorly impersonations, a sword named Bessie, and an elaborate opening ceremony involving calls for the President to resign. Its trademark is humorous theatricality and convoluted drama – not precisely the kind of stuff that keeps MI5 awake at night.

Look at it this way: If you saw a Simpsonepisode that featured a joke about killing Trump, you’d treat it slightly differently to Andrew Neil doing a monologue on the same subject on Daily Politics. Context is important. 

Photo: UDS
Photo: UDS

Another UDS myth floating around is that it’s some kind of hotbed of radical leftism. Incorrect. The UDS board of ten is politically diverse. It includes Tories, Socialists and the one person in Britain who still likes Nick Clegg. The crowd that the public debates cater to are no revolutionaries either. While the fact that public debates are open to everyone means there are often wildly divergent views on display (not that this is a bad thing), a look at the results of debates that have taken place so far this year shows that UDS audiences usually vote against radical motions, be they left wing or right. 

So, now that we’ve established that this debate is neither a threat to the wellbeing of any tiny-handed populists, nor likely to lead to the formation of revolutionary cadres on South Street, let’s look at the actual salient issue here: free speech. This motion is a joke. The UDS is not inciting anyone to violence. There is no conceivable way that anyone could be hurt as a result of it. Yet they’ve faced pressure, not just from other students but from politicians and the national press, to cancel it.

Why? Because people were offended. Think about that for a second. We’re being told that the rights of our fellow student end where the feelings of others begin, that expressing an opinion is tantamount to violence. Is that not a little worrying? 

Now, to clarify, I’m not saying you should support this motion. But you shouldn’t ban it either. It offends you? Then go down to Lower Parliament Hall on Thursday and speak against it. You don’t win arguments by refusing to have them. Trump supporters can claim that those defending having this debate might be just as offended by it if the motion was “This House Would Assassinate President Clinton.” They may even be right. But you know what? The offence taken by Clinton supporters wouldn’t be a good enough reason to not have that debate, either. Free speech is not an issue of left and right. It’s an issue of right and wrong. 

And also, for God’s sake Trump supporters – if you can’t be counted on to not get offended by a joke in poor taste, then who the hell can?



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