Why are some university debating societies havens of misogyny?

The heckling experienced by female debaters at Glasgow University Union is an unwelcome reminder of a previous age where personal insults were fair game. And anyone who disagrees is a dickless baboon.

Today, the Spectator published an article by Gerald Warner, defending the conduct of a bunch of idiots who heckled female speakers during a debate at the Glasgow University Union debates. According to Warner, women should just laugh off being discussed salaciously in terms of their looks, and being booed for even mentioning feminism in a speech - his solution is that they should have derailed their speeches, and heckled back. "The problem is today’s politically correct debaters... cannot tolerate contradiction or ridicule. It simply is not in the script."

Of course, Warner misses the point - these women have advanced to the final of a national debating competition, and deserve to have their speeches heard, without interruptions from people without the intellectual capacity to get to that level. Would Warner support racist hecklers at the sidelines of the Olympics, booing Mo Farah for being black? Tell him to just toughen up, deal with it?

Gerald Warner is living in the past, in more ways than one. He seems to think minority groups just need to toughen up, to take the banter. As one of the debaters in question, Rebecca Meredith, says here, not only does the Glasgow Union regularly boo and heckle women, but ethnic minorities too - for nothing more than the temerity to be not born white and male. Is that ok, Mr Warner?

Warner goes on to lionise the rowdy, laddish banteriffic culture of the Glasgow University Union, and then goes on to tell us of the illustrious history, of competitions won, of presidents who have advanced on into politics, of 1960s occasions where ANC leaders were voted in as rector. An illustrious past does not make up for a shameful present - a quick look around the Facebook profiles surrounding the GUU swiftly uncovers that as recently as 2010, a GUU Secretary "follow[ed] tradition with a joke about raping freshers whilst blacked up. No means yes, yes means harder." I wonder what the former ANC rector would make of "blacking up to rape" gags?

It looks more like there is something sick within the Glasgow's debating society - the Everyday sexism in the GUU page makes for distressing reading. On it, anonymous commenters talk about "games" like "fat girl rodeo" - where you grab a girl in a club, tell her you are going to rape her, and then see how long you can hang on for. Board members allegedly proposition freshers with lines like "You look like a fucking slut who is gagging for it". The men who blocked women from being members of the Union are looked on as heroes. The shameful exclusion of women from the Union until the 1980s has been taken up as a rallying cry by misogynists within the Union - which might explain why it has done so badly at debating for years.

Gerald Warner's assessment of the quality of the GUU is years out of date. As he rightly points out, they used to be good. But they haven't won the national debating competition (the Mace) or even reached the elimination stages of the World Championships in over a decade. Maybe if they were less hostile to women or people of colour, that might change?

The truth is, 14 years ago, when I was regularly debating, this sort of revolting, discourteous booing and catcalling and generalised misogyny was the norm; I distinctly remember a Glasgow judge grabbing my debate partner's breasts and saying "If you'd showed more of these, we might have let you win". At the time, Oxford and Cambridge were almost as bad - I recall speeches where a Cambridge debater divided up an audience into "sluts" and "frigid girls you'd marry", and a president of the Oxford Union told me that the fact a speaker from my "toytown former polytechnic university spoke on the floor of the Oxford Union denigrated the whole institution of debating".

The rest of university debating has moved on since - particularly through the efforts of charities like DebateMate, Idea, and the English Speaking Union, debating has been democratised, and is now a much more welcoming and pleasant place. I hope that women and ethnic minorites feel welcome - indeed, women have been the top speakers in the world several times in the last few years. Contrary to Gerald Warner's assertion that "as with politics, fewer women want to debate. The rough and tumble of a dialectical free-for-all is not for them", female participation is at an all-time high - and a large part of that comes down to people refusing to tolerate misogyny, and it gradually being stamped out.

What Warner wants is a return to a misogynist free-for-all, where any insult, no matter who delivers it, counts as a valid argument to be rebutted. He laughably characterises any attempt to stand up to that culture as "Stalinist".  In which case, I'd like to say that if Gerald Warner thinks misogynist insults are a valid part of debate, then he's a paranoid dinosaur, with all the writing grace of a dickless baboon. Is that a valid argument, Mr Warner?

Willard Foxton was once the 7th best speaker in the world for "toytown polytechnic" the university of the West of England, and twice won the world's funniest debater prize.

A moody baboon. Photo: Getty

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Photo: Getty
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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.