Why Liberate the Debate?
As of me writing this article, Liberate the Debate (LtD) is now two and a half years old, with its early roots traced to being hosted at the back of our student accommodation cold and shivering while we debated over any topic. Now, LtD is a national organisation, with ten chapters all around the country, being the largest student free speech organisation in the country. It’s exemplary that many students hold freedom of speech as a core value, particularly at university.
In a sense, as one of the directors of LtD, freedom of speech has been one of the core parts of my identity. As a politically engaged individual with high-functioning autism, throwing myself into debates was not rare, of which most of the time, the conversation was terminated as I had often wanted to get to the grit, or perhaps the more uncomfortable questions regarding certain topics. Sometimes, the reason for its termination was ‘wrong place, wrong time,’ or it was an uncomfortable topic to discuss. There’s certainly no issue in admitting that when I was younger I was certainly not as tactful as I could have been, but I was not satisfied in discussions being stopped on the basis of discomfort.
I looked forward to coming to university, where true academic inquiry flourishes. Indeed, at the university I attend it is filled with mantras of being bold and challenging ideas. Right on I thought. However, I found starting my degree (Politics & International Relations), certain modules or seminars felt quite fixed. It was not uncommon that if I debated another student or a seminar tutor, it would be ground to a halt, despite it being very relevant to the discussion.
I recall, playing as devil’s advocate in a seminar. I argued that the United States and its ancillaries were right to invade Iraq. Having moved past the WMD conversation, the seminar tutor asked me somewhat smugly what right we had to violate a state’s self-determination, to which I responded: ‘Most likely when they conduct genocides in the hundreds of thousands against their own citizens.’ Her face dropped, the conversation was dropped, the ball was dropped, and we went on with the seminar. These experiences left me dissatisfied.
Thus, we (the current Directors, Matt, Ed and I) started a little club out the back of our student accommodation, debating, discussing and exchanging any political view under the sun. It was an extraordinarily frank experience, whereby we could really dig into concepts, ideologies, theories, reflecting upon our own beliefs, and whether we owed our credence to them because of rational and coherent bases, or on emotional comfort. Evidently, we weren’t alone, with more new people attending, and we sought to establish ourselves as a society with the Sussex Students’ Union.
Our start was strong, and we turned towards hosting speakers of varying origins, and controversy. We try to maintain as positive a relationship with Students’ Unions, but many of them do not know their own policies with freedom of speech, or indeed ‘red taping’ an event with unnecessary bureaucracy in the name of ‘safety,’ often without describing what the harm would be. Protesting students often scared the Students’ Unions despite many of them being hardly disruptive. A quote comes to mind on this:
‘The thing you have to remember about censors is they don’t think they’re censoring. They think they’re protecting people.’
I have no doubt Students’ Unions are well intentioned. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lack of competence at times. If you’re a university student, you probably have some story you can rail on about it. This is where LtD comes in. LtD attempts to show that freedom of speech is something that any student can have, to have the courage to engage and debate topics that may be repugnant, discomforting or indeed shocking. We promote weekly sessions of discussion for students to grapple and come to terms with debating different views, while learning to appreciate views you may not agree with. In addition, we look to host speakers of varying discussions and topics, whether political, military, NGO, technology and whatnot.
In any case, we believed our model was something that other students could adopt. Therefore, since last November, LtD has become a national organisation, whereby we have tried to reach out to student groups to join us. We believe a national organisation and community can provide credibility to our cause, while making a very legitimate impact for many students out there.
I’ll finish up with one thing. Practically any individual will say that they believe in freedom of speech, often without critical thought on this, coming short on it when it involves offending something sensitive to them. In my belief, freedom of speech is innately unpopular – freedom of speech will always ruffle a few feathers, and therefore it proscribes its own importance by defending narratives divergent of social mob mentality.
Written by Peter Anson, Director of LtD.