“Given the imminence of a referendum and the current oppression of freedom of speech in universities across the country,” Katie Ascough said, in a recent interview with the Irish Independent, “I am not holding my breath for a fair and open debate before May”.
It’s hard to be a pro-life student in Ireland, so they say. It’s hard to be right-wing, because most people won’t like you, and some will try to stop you from saying things in public. Ascough has been speaking in public a lot in the last few months; she casts herself as a bucker of trends and taboos, the leader of a small group of people who are brave enough to go up against a censorious majority.
The tropes that Ascough uses will be familiar to anyone who has been inside a university in the last few years – everyone has heard people use them in all kinds of contexts. It wouldn’t be exactly true to say that Ascough speaks about the referendum as if it’s happening on a US college campus, but it wouldn’t be far off the mark. There are a small group of militant pro-choice students at “the top” who shout the loudest, and the majority beneath who feel pressured, for all kinds of reasons, into following them.
This is a convenient worldview for Ascough, but in her case it’s simply untrue. I’m sure that, as she has said, there were people who were looking for a reason to get rid of her from Day 1, but most people in high-profile jobs have people looking for reasons to get rid of them. Ascough’s problem was that she gave them a good reason – good enough that the turnout in her impeachment referendum was massive, in student-political terms. A small group of militant people can do many things, but they can’t force people to turn up and vote, anonymously and democratically, in the way that they want.
Now, that she is wrong, or at least thoroughly simplistic, in her characterisation of Irish universities goes without saying to anyone with knowledge of them: that’s not the interesting bit. The interesting bit is where Ascough adjusts the tropes. To her, students are under pressure to follow whatever is “cool,” and avoid what’s “not cool”; she shows no awareness that she’s using the vocabulary and frame of reference of a middle-aged teacher trying to connect with the kids. “It is very hard to go against what is perceived to be the ‘cool thing’ on campus,” she tells the Independent. Again, same interview: “What kind of society are we living in that a right to life is seen as anti-cultural and uncool?”
This, to me, is clear proof that Ascough, if indeed she has ever actually spoken to a pro-choice, pro-impeach UCD student, never once actually listened to them and tried to work out where they were coming from. Her idea of how normal students think, and the pressures and other forces that shape them, is bizarre. I’ve never marched for anything, but I know plenty of people who marched for choice, and plenty of people involved in student politics and debating, and I’ve heard the word “cool” a handful of times in my life.
As she imagines it, there’s one group of students, and everyone is looking to fit in with the group, and also watching out for people who don’t fit. There’s no evidence that she’s thought about how the nature of college, with its separate societies and courses, is such that people tend instead to separate into smaller groups based on their interests: there is no coolest student in school, because there are too many different groups of people. In college, people don’t need to be around people who are pressuring them to be somebody else. And they usually don’t want to either: by the time they’re close to 20, most people have at least a loose sense of who they are and what they’re willing to put up with.
Ascough is wrong, but in this case she has a reason. The belief that there are a few bad people whipping the majority into line enables Ascough to explain away the two facts that most UCD students are good people who want the best for everyone, and that most UCD students are pro-choice and were pro-impeachment.
I’m not at all saying that this convenience is proof that Ascough is twisting the truth or saying things that she doesn’t fully believe. Rather, it’s proof that Ascough has done something depressingly common. She’s chosen what is, in her case, the easiest thing to believe. We all, in our lives, come up against the uncomfortable fact that good people will think about an issue and come to a different conclusion to us; the stronger we feel about the issue, the harder this is to accept.
Everyone who disagrees with me, the thinking goes, must be either a bad person or else doesn’t fully understand the issue. Most people would be pro-life if they really understood the issue, so the reason that they’re pro-choice must be that they haven’t listened to the arguments because of peer pressure from a few bad eggs, and free speech issues on campus.
As we’re coming closer to the referendum, the two sides are more and more showing that they are unable to accept that people are simply going to disagree with them; it’s often and rightly said that many pro-choicers lazily believe that most pro-lifers are just bad or misogynistic people. But the mainstream pro-life movement have avoided a lot of scrutiny in this respect, because they’ve instead chosen to believe that most pro-choicers simply haven’t had a chance to hear both arguments equally. That way, if they lose the referendum, they will have lost because of censorship and oppression rather than because most people preferred the other argument.
All of this is the explanation for the strangest thing about Katie Ascough’s interview, which is her reference to a supposed censorship of pro-lifers at a panel discussion on the Eighth Amendment held at the Philosophical Society (Philosoph) in UCC – you won’t be able to read her reference now, because the Independent has removed it, but it was in the original article.
The dispute occurred because the Philosoph – and I should say, by way of disclosure, that I have several friends and a brother in the Philosoph – invited more pro-choice than pro-life speakers for the panel, because, in essence, the event’s organiser seems to have heard the words “status-quo bias” in a political science lecture, and decided that this was a problem that needed fixing. There was an exchange of long bullet-pointed Facebook posts and comments, and in the end, the pro-life speakers pulled out.
This “censorship” has led to countless tweets and one-star reviews of the Philosoph’s Facebook page by pro-lifers. John McGuirk, one of the leaders of the pro-life movement tweeted about it multiple times, and the Iona Institute have a lengthy blog post about it. The UCC Philosoph’s panel discussion on the Eighth Amendment has been a big concern of some of the major figures in the pro-life movement.
Here’s a Facebook post by Students for Life Cork about the event: “YOU won’t believe what UCC Philosophical Society says is a FAIR debate on abortion – a panel where they INSIST on having SIX pro-repeal the 8th speakers against just THREE pro-life speakers. They say (read their statement below) that they won’t ‘pander’ to notions of a ‘fair’ and ‘equal’ debate, and that their decision is final. They even say they are turning off comments on their decision. THIS is not a debate, it is a farce. What are they afraid of?”
And yet the discussion was totally insignificant. After all of that publicity, about 50 people showed up, which is about four or five times the average attendance at a Philosoph event, including committee members. They’re a tiny student society. It reminds me of a Marxist academic I once heard speak on the corporatisation of universities, “and the debating societies are sponsored by corporations – a joke,” he exclaimed, as if this had some sort of impact on the character of university debating societies. Here’s the beginning of the Iona Institute’s blog post about the Philosoph’s event:
““Justice is the advantage of the stronger,” said Thrasymachus to Socrates, who disagreed. In our own culture, tolerance is increasingly merely an intermediary strategy used by the strong who still lacks power in certain areas.”
The writer is supposed to be Socrates, you see. They’re part of a battle which has raged for all of humankind’s existence between force and justice. Thrasymachus is “the tiny elite group of staff and students at UCC”. The debate is not actually about abortion, but whether pro-lifers are being attacked instead of getting a fair hearing. They had every reason to pull out of this panel discussion: pull out, and you’ve lost because you were censored and stood on principle; stay in, and you might lose because you’ve lost the argument.
People find it easy to recognise the dirty tactics and double-thinks of others, but will often resort to any false belief or conspiracy theory, rather than accept that good people who understand an issue as well as they do disagree. Ascough and the pro-life movement seem to see no irony in the fact that they shout about the freedom to speak while ignoring the duty to listen. Listening might not win the argument, and it might not make it easier for Ascough and others to go out on the open-top bus, but it will make it easier for us all to live with each other after the referendum is finished. If the pro-life and pro-choice movements decide to shout each other down instead of listening, we’re all going to be in for a very long and damaging few months.