‘Irish Times’ debate focuses on censorship of ‘historically insensitive’ literature

Student debaters battle it out for place in final

Student debaters hotly contested the merits of editing historically insensitive writing at the semi-finals of The Irish Times Debate 2017-2018 in Dublin on Tuesday night.

Contestants from King's Inns, Queen's University Belfast, UCD's Law Society, TCD's Hist and the Solicitors Apprentice Debating Society of Ireland were competing for a place in the final later this month.

Competitors debated the question: “This house would edit historically insensitive writing/literature”.

The winning team was judged to be UCD's Law Soc, which included Cian Leahy and Aodhan Peelo, and the individual winner was Russell Nairn of QUB Literific.

Proposing the motion, Patrick Fitzgerald of King's Inns argued that allowing offensive terms in literature created the "soft conditions for prejudice to breed by undermining the dignifity of minorities."

This, he said, created the conditions where it was socially acceptable to deny the existence of the Holocaust or use the “n-word”.

Opposing the motion, Edmund Doherty of QUB Literific argued that editing litary works would undermine their artistic integrity and lead to a white-washing of history.

“We must allow works which challenge our world view to exist. Otherwise, we may be doomed to repeat it through ignorance.”

Arguing in favour, Graham Murtagh of the Solicitors Apprentice Debating Society of Ireland (Sadsi) said editing was crucial to safeguard children from offensive content.

He gave the example of Richard Scarry’s children’s books, originally filled with gendered or racial stereotypes in the 1960s, which have been revised over the years to reflect changing social norms.

“The alternative is banning books - doing nothing will only condemn these books to an uncertain future.”

Opposing the motion, Cian Leahy of UCD Law Soc said attempts to provide more comforting versions of literature would simply insulate people from ideas or attitudes that could be shocking, vulgar or offensive.

“Literature is an antitode to the echo chamber we frequently silo oursevles into.”

Also speaking in opposition, Ciara Nic Ghabhann of King's Inns argued that editing would strip vitally important writing of its power and meaning. Feminist writing, for example, had a duty to offend certain readers in many circumstances.

However, Niall Maher of TCD's Hist said careful editing was important to show that society did care about those who have been historically discrimianted against.

The alternative, he argued was “no discussion, no debate and most importantly, no change.”

Opposing, Graham Bloomfield of Sadsi said attemptiong to re-write works such as Shakepeare on the basis of its misogny or anti-semitism amounted to “cultural vandalism.”

“You cannot whitewash history. There is nothing to be gained from shouting down old stories. We can’t be certain about our moral superiority to the past.”

The grand final takes place at Queen's University Belfast on Friday February 23rd. The event is being hosted by the Literary and Scientific Society, Queen's University Belfast.

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