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Breda O’Brien: I was shouted down for 40 minutes at Oxford University

Pro-choice students screamed to prevent anti-abortion speakers being heard

Oxford University. One sweet moment happened when a transgender woman said to me: “I am so sorry. This is not Oxford.” Photograph: Getty Images

It is not pleasant to be shouted down and prevented from speaking for 40 minutes, particularly since it happened in what is allegedly one of the best universities in the world, Oxford. I had been invited, along with Lorcan Price BL, by a small society, Oxford Students for Life, (OSFL), to speak about Ireland and abortion. (My son is on the OSFL committee but I choose to hope I might have been asked anyway).

OSFL hold many debates. This was different, an open invitation to attend two presentations lasting 50 minutes, to be followed by an equal amount of time for respectful civilised dialogue.

It is not easy to be anti-abortion in Oxford. The minority of students who publicly identify as pro-life meet reactions ranging from mild bemusement to outright hostility. Many others opt to keep their heads down.

OSFL was aware there was a protest planned by the Women’s Campaign of Oxford University Students’ Union. As a precautionary measure St John’s College brought in extra security, but this was not at OSFL’s request.

The event was held in a smallish room, a fact remarked upon by one of the pro-choice protesters when she arrived. “This room is tiny,” she sniffed. 

I thought, but did not say, “this what a minority looks like. They meet in the smaller rooms.” 

Ironically, even though dozens wanted to attend, they were squeezed out by protesters who came only to disrupt.

Nonetheless, I had a pleasant chat beforehand with some of the protesters, one of whom was Irish.

High intelligence

Anna, one of the OSFL committee, welcomed everyone, and again asked for respectful dialogue.

I began by saying that I am currently reading The Influential Mind by Tali Sharot. One of the depressing things that she highlights is research that shows high intelligence is not at all correlated with being open to changing one’s mind.

Instead, formidable intelligence often just enables people to pick holes in any evidence, no matter how true or compelling, that contradicts their views. This enables them to confirm their biases.

This is true of all sides in an ideological debate, so I asked everyone present to make this a space of real mutual listening.

About 15 protesters leapt up and shouted slogans, along with clapping that made conversation impossible

Almost immediately about 15 protesters leapt up and proceeded to shout slogans for the next 40 minutes without pause, along with clapping that made conversation, much less a presentation, impossible.

I had expected heckling, robust questioning, perhaps even a staged walk-out. But not this blatant inability to allow others to be different from them.

OSFL committee members and I pleaded with the protesters but were ignored. The protesters held cheat sheets from which they chanted slogans such as “Pro-life, that’s a lie! You don’t care if women die.” Chanting from the same slogan sheet, as it were.

Slogans are such an easy substitute for the difficult work of thinking.

Homemade signs

Some of the organisers hastily assembled homemade signs saying things like “I’m a woman too. What about my right to speak?” When that failed they sat with their hands over their mouths to signify being silenced. At all times those who came to listen acted with dignity and respect.

At one stage I moved to a computer and with shaky, nervous fingers typed: “Check your privilege, people. The best education in the world and all you can do is shout people down? What are you afraid of? Having your minds changed?”

The small mob immediately blocked the projector and continued to shout, high on the euphoria of their own rightness. Presumably none of them would identify as bullies or bigots, but that is what they acted like.

Rather unwisely one of the security people hired for the night tried to remove a protester. The committee and I immediately begged him to stop, and to take his hands off her. He alleged that he had been assaulted by her when he tried to remove her, so he now had to call the police.

The space for civilised dialogue is shrinking, and increasingly the same attitudes manifest themselves in far older people

The OSFL committee was aghast at this development, but it was out of its hands. The police were very professional and acceded to OSFL’s request for no removals when reassured that the speakers did not feel under personal physical threat. 

The racket led to lots of curious students coming to see what was going on. Their reactions ranged from support for the protesters, to embarrassment and even anger at the blatant disregard for free speech.

Not Oxford

One sweet moment happened when a transgender woman said to me: “I am so sorry. This is not Oxford.”

The junior deans were also helpful and supportive.

This is all of a piece with what happened to Katie Ascough, impeached as president of the UCD student’s union for upholding the law.

Years ago you could have been sure that these students would outgrow their black-and-white “error has no rights” vitriolic attitudes. But the space for civilised dialogue is shrinking, and increasingly the same attitudes manifest themselves in far older people.

No matter where you stand on issues such as abortion, if this kind of behaviour is normalised the future for democracy is bleak.