There’s a Right Way to Lose at the Oxford Union. I Did the Wrong Way

They don’t do humour, the Stepford Students. So I’d give it to them straight.

The way not to win a debate at the Oxford Union, I’ve just discovered, is to start your speech with a casual quip about Aids. It wasn’t a scripted joke. Just one of those things you blurt out in those terrifying initial moments when you’re trying to win the audience over with your japeish, irreverent, mildly self-parodying human side before launching into your argument proper.

It only happened because when my turn came to speak there wasn’t any still water for me to drink and I was parched. So various Union officers proffered me the dregs of the other speakers’ half-drunk bottles. ‘Oh my God, I might get Aids,’ I ad-libbed, to no general amusement whatsoever. From that moment things only went from bad to H.M. Bateman.

First it was just the odd groan and hiss of disapproval. But the longer I went on, the more it became clear that even the more tasteful, light and apolitical jokes I’d prepared were going down with the crowd like a cauldron of cold sick. As for my more trenchant offerings — on ‘cis gender’; on feminazis; on the ludicrousness of ‘safe -spaces’, etc — well if I’d just barbecued a kitten and offered round titbits to taste I doubt I’d have got a much less enthusiastic response. We lost the debate by an enormous margin.

Afterwards, the Union’s charming Aussie president explained where I’d gone wrong. ‘You were lost from the moment you joked about Aids,’ he said. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Really,’ he confirmed. ‘Cis gender, too. You can never joke about that,’ said one of his mates, sotto voce, glancing nervously over his shoulder. ‘Even saying the word makes me uncomfortable. You don’t know who’s listening.’

And the depressing thing is, they meant it. Of course, I should have known this from Brendan O’Neill’s heartfelt piece last year about Oxford’s mirthless, free-speech-averse Stepford Students. But until you’ve experienced it for yourself, you’re inclined to dismiss this stuff as journalistic licence. ‘Surely the place can’t have changed that much since I was here?’ you think.

It has, though. It’s like The Walking Dead. Especially in Wadham, apparently, where pretty much the entire college has been infected. (But then, Wadham, eh? Home of Terry Eagleton, the man who, in the only lecture I ever attended, told me it was just as valid to deconstruct the telephone directory as it was to read Shakespeare.) ‘Actually there probably aren’t all that many of them but their influence is disproportionate to their numbers,’ another undergraduate explained. ‘They’re so shrill and angry and difficult that everyone censors themselves just to avoid attracting their attention.’

Read the rest at the Spectator.

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