The Oxford Union, an elite debating society, was founded in 1823 to support the free exchange of ideas.
The University of Oxford apparently did not stop A. C. Grayling from explaining in a letter (excerpted by both The Independent and The Telegraph) why he refused to cancel his speaking engagement at the Oxford Union, despite a boycott over allegations of sexual violence against its president. When I took the opposite decision last week, the University acted swiftly to silence me.
This gender violence controversy has been brewing at the Oxford Union for several weeks. A small group of university women have organized a grassroots attempt to persuade upcoming speakers to cancel their engagements as an expression of disapproval for the institutional failure to engage seriously with the problem of gender aggression in Oxford.
The Oxford Union is a prestigious venue whose calendar is full every term with renowned speakers and important events. As, one by one, these prominent people withdrew, some of them issuing strong statements to the press, attention to the circumstances began to grow.
The Oxford Forum for Women in the World Economy—popularly called “Power Shift”—is a two-day annual event that includes, among other activities, a debate on a gender equality topic at the Oxford Union. I am the leader for this event, inviting speakers and planning content, but I work with a committed team of professionals who work hard to make this Forum inspirational but action-oriented. Power Shift draws people from many countries, from both public and private sectors, all of them actively engaged in programs that try to enable women around the world to be economically autonomous—which also often means trying to ensure their safety. Financial dependency very often enables domestic violence, for instance, and female entrepreneurs or workers are often the targets for attacks—misguided attempts to reinforce the gender system through intimidation.
The team organizing Power Shift felt there was a conflict between our mission (as well as the sympathies of our audience) and the situation at the Union. We also were worried, by early last week, that the controversy was gaining media traction and that the Union’s inability to cope responsibly was likely to end in pickets and protests. The real possibility existed, in our view, that holding the Power Shift debate at the Union would draw ironic and critical attention, turning the news of our gathering into a warped statement about gender violence—and potentially embarrassing or endangering our participants. So, we decided to quietly move the debate to the Nelson Mandela theater and cancel our booking at the Union.
There was immediate pushback from the University’s administration. No one would listen to our reasons. Instead, we heard, repeatedly, a line that we could all agree with in principle—“innocent until proven guilty”—but delivered in a pompous don’t-make-me-think-about-this-twice harrumph that would brook no consideration of the broader backdrop. One colleague even wrote to say he wished we had taken “the principled response,” as if to say the action we had taken was unprincipled.
The Oxford Union logo is nearly identical to the University of Oxford logo, adding further to the impression that they are the same institution.
The plan to move quietly—enabled by the Union’s failure to post our event on their website—fit well with my main objective, to protect the privacy and safety of our guests. However, because we had made much in our invitational materials of the “historic Oxford Union” as the site for the debate, I felt I owed the participants an explanation for the cancellation. I drafted a very simple text that did not mention the court case in any way and that was to be delivered only in person to the Power Shift attendees. But the University would not have it: we were merely to say that the debate had been moved for “operational reasons.”
I reluctantly agreed for the moment, but a member of my team pointed out an uncomfortable contradiction: A. C. Grayling and I both, as professors of the University, have protected speech—not only the freedoms enjoyed by citizens of a democracy, but the additional academic freedoms zealously guarded by the faculty union at Oxford—yet I was being told to keep silent on an issue that pertains directly to my research. I told the University representative that I would be speaking out after Power Shift.
This post is my first attempt to remark publicly about what happened. I have no special knowledge at all about the case that gave rise to the controversy at the Union. Therefore, I am speaking here, not to the guilt or innocence of the accused (which I cannot possibly know), but to the hiding and silence that has grown up to stop open discussion of the larger issue of gender violence at Oxford. Like other UK schools, Oxford has no tailored procedure or program to deal with sexual harassment and violence, despite the known seriousness of the problem for female students. I am guessing that the greater inequalities between Oxford’s female and male students, as well as the puffed-up attitudes of Oxford faculty and administrators toward confronting this issue, point to higher risks here than elsewhere. Like the No Red Tape demonstrations at US graduations this spring, the boycott of the Union (and the white ribbon campaign at exams this week) are efforts to force the local academic community to look at and talk about an ugly issue it has long tried to ignore.
There have been several occasions in my career at Oxford in which I have been asked to keep silent about a gender issue. Three times the topic was sexual aggression, twice it was the situation for women in business schools, once it was fair hiring practice, and once it was equal pay. In no instance was I trying to say anything legally inappropriate or slanderous. Each time, I have replied with something pointed like, “Please stop trying to censor my speech.” But it doesn’t stop the attempts to keep me quiet.
In one conversation about two years ago, I commented in a generalized way to a sympathetic male colleague, saying that the local culture seemed ominously inclined to quash talk about gender inequality. He was honestly surprised and pointed to all the various lectures and outreach programs around town that focused on women’s issues. Of course, he had no idea how the internal scene contradicted these outward-facing events, precisely because no one ever talks about what is going on under their own noses.
This private club is a recognized springboard to national leadership. An inordinate number of high ranking British officials, including 12 Prime Ministers, have honed their persuasive skills here.
So, this is my point. In what is otherwise, in many ways, a progressive local culture, the problems of gender, especially the aggression, go unaddressed because of a widespread complicity to keep quiet. Very often, the silence is justified by some insufficiently considered and incorrectly applied, but holier-than-thou maxim about protecting the victim/accused. And, very often, the University crouches behind some flimsy institutional excuse–such as saying they are not formally affiliated with the Union—in order to avoid taking responsible steps. As a result, there are no appropriate procedures and no safe places to go, for women who find themselves fighting off sexualized attacks.