Cancel culture comes for debate in schools

While school pupils are being admonished for ‘wrong-think’, Debating Matters provides a vital corrective: free, open and frank debate.

This news item was originally written as a guest post for the Academy of Ideas substack.

Earlier this year, when Debating Matters launched the 20 for 20 programme to celebrate its twentieth anniversary, the idea was to raise our profile, post-Covid, after a sustained period in which school debate had been severely restricted. We are now in full swing, having delivered 10 out of the 20 events so far.

Schools debating is precious and worth supporting. In the USA, however, it is under threat from cancel culture – and we cannot let that happen here.

This week, on her Substack, The Free Press, Bari Weiss published the second in a series of guest posts from a former US debate champion, James Fishback, on the hijacking of school debates in the US. Fishback notes that certain debate judges, particularly those with ‘an explicit left-wing bias’, have recently begun allowing their own personal opinions to cloud their ability to judge students objectively on the content and quality of their arguments.

Focusing most prominently on the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA), which was founded in 1925, Fishback highlights a range of cancel-culture techniques that have become commonplace amongst established debate judges.

Most notably, Fishback found, some judges have publicly stated they will ensure students lose their rounds if they argue ‘in favour of capitalism, or Israel, or the police’. They will also consider personal attacks by students on their opponents as valid – even allowing the publishing of social-media posts as evidence of ‘wrong-think’. In addition, judges have declared that using ‘gendered language’ or ‘micro-aggressions’ (even where it is difficult to provide evidence) will result in students losing their debate or being disqualified from the debate altogether. Such micro-aggressions, incidentally, might include ‘America is a melting pot’, ‘There is only one race, the human race’ and ‘The most qualified person should get the job’.

As one of the students interviewed for the piece rightly argues, this is ‘antithetical to what true open debate is’. Moreover, as Fishback notes, this type of behaviour drives students into self-censorship, narrows the parameters of the debate, and instils in students a fear about what can and can’t be said – ironically, all under the guise of creating a ‘safe space’.

Fishback’s exposé is just one of many stories emerging this year. The most notorious is the recent high-profile case at Rye College, which sparked a government investigation after it was reported a teacher verbally attacked two students for their views. The teacher was filmed telling them they were ‘despicable’ and should ‘go to a different school’ for stating their belief that gender is linked to biological sex. Young people are being told that ideas that were utterly uncontroversial until very recently are now verboten.

It’s difficult to comprehend how schools and debating organisations, whose job it is to provide students with a liberal education and support the free exchange of ideas have succumbed to this juvenile, cancel-culture phenomenon. Yet many students, teachers and others who believe in free speech have experienced this phenomenon, as I noted in my Letter on Liberty, Why Debating Matters.

This debate-suppressing attitude is the polar opposite of the ethos of Debating Matters. Our goal is to allow full, free and frank discussion on the big issues of our time. Thankfully, with the pandemic’s restrictions behind us, we’re delighted that, halfway through our twentieth-anniversary year, we’ve already hosted or taken part in 10 events as part of our 20 for 20 programme, with 10 more exciting events to come!

Earlier this year, we were approached by the Durham Union Society (DUS) and asked to host a sixth-form debating competition at DUS, home of Durham’s oldest and largest society, founded in 1842. DUS wanted to work with Debating Matters on its free-speech programme of events for the year. Concerned with the general narrowing of debate in universities, former DUS president Jordan Kiss, current president Adam Albazy and outreach officer Alex McDermott wanted to showcase the home of student debate in Durham and to encourage sixth formers to take part in an exchange of ideas in the splendid environment of the Debate Chamber on Palace Green.

On 8 June, we hosted a Free Speech Championship with students from across the North East. Eighty students, judges and teachers came together to take part in an intense but thrilling day of debate at the Debating Matters Durham Championship 2023, where students tackled such motions as ‘Billionaires owning media companies is bad for democracy, ‘Healthcare workers should not be allowed to strike’ and ‘The UK government should legalise commercial surrogacy’.

There was an exhilarating end to the day with a spirited debate between Grammar School at Leeds and Durham Sixth Form Centre discussing whether, indeed, ‘Cancel Culture is a threat to Free Speech’. After a valiantly-fought debate, the Durham school took home the champions’ title with one team member, Cameron Passey, awarded best individual debater, too.

Following that event, members of the Debating Matters team headed back down to London where DM alumni Tom Collyer and Ethan Green formed a team with me to take part in a ‘friendly’ competition with the 104 London Debaters. I’m delighted (and relieved) to say that we were triumphant!

We then hot-footed it to Berlin to co-host the Debating Matters Berlin Championship 2023 on 15 June. The competition saw 12 schools, 40 judges and 100s of students coming together in perhaps the most intense day of debate to date! It was a fabulous day, in which our German hosts – University of Europe for Applied Sciences, Berlin and Freiblickinstitut – supported us to provide a welcoming and genuinely open environment in which young German students could debate contemporary political and social issues. It’s our eighth time in Berlin and the testimonies we’re still receiving from judges, students and teachers remind us how many people do truly value the opportunity for a robust but civil exchange of ideas.

Our next Debating Matters competition once again focused on free-speech motions, taking place at an iconic building – 55 Broadway in Westminster – on Thursday 6 July. The Debating Matters London Championship 2023 was another exhilarating day to mark our twentieth-anniversary year with Aylesbury Grammar School taking home the coveted award of DM London Champions 2023 and Toby Webster of AGS being awarded Best Individual debater.

We are immensely proud that we continue to champion free speech and open debate in these increasingly censorious times and never tire of how much students truly appreciate the opportunity to get to grips with contemporary issues in a fast-paced, highly charged but civil environment. 

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