Should Page 3 Pictures be Banned? (2013), by Sean Gabb

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This House Believes that Page 3 should be Banned
By Sean Gabb
Speech to the University of London Union
30th September 2013

Founded in 1828, the University of London Union describes itself as “UCL’s oldest and arguably most prestigious society.” The University motto, prominently displayed by the Union is the hexameter verse Cuncti adsint meritaeque expectent praemia palmae – which roughly translates as “Let all come who by merit deserve the foremost prize.” Last night, Monday the 30th September 2013, I spoke at one of its debates against the motion “This House Believes that Page 3 should be Banned.” This refers to the calls for The Sun newspaper to be stopped from publishing photographs of half-naked women on its inside front page.

This debate was most notable for the attendance of a television celebrity called Luisa Zissman. This may explain why the room was full to overflowing: I doubt so many people turned out to see me or any of the other speakers. And she was worth watching. Apart from her looks, she seems to make a career from the pretence of being stupid, when she is really very clever. She made a couple of good speeches without a script in which she poured scorn on the assembled lefties – “I never went to university, but expect to make a great deal more money than you ever will,” and so forth. Claims that she was collaborating in the “objectification” of women got a thorough roasting.

On the other side, arguing for the proposition, were a couple of dreary feminists. These read prepared texts and paid no attention to the Chairman’s frantic banging of his gavel when they went over their allotted time. Their speeches were fashionably opaque – though anyone able to understand the meanings placed on words like “challenge” and “education” and “change” could see well enough they were arguing for a pc police state with themselves in charge.

My opening speech was the usual argument, that freedom of speech is the right to publish anything that is not a breach of some private right, or an act of obvious treason. I elaborated: “Imagine someone stands up and says that the holocaust never happened, but should have; or that Christ or Mohammed were epileptic paedophiles – would this be free speech within my definition? Of course it would be!” (Cries of incredulity and outrage.) At this point, or soon after, some fool intervened with a point of information. Would I allow violent pornography to be published? he asked. “Assuming it is by and for consenting adults,” I answered, “yes.” (More groans.)

This brought me to the main point: “Let it be granted that nudey pictures in The Sun caused men to view women less respectfully than they otherwise might. You take that as grounds for censorship? Well, some Christians have used verses from The Bible as justification for acts of outstanding wickedness. So do some Israelis. And what of those Moslems who shot up that shopping centre in Kenya? No doubt they found their inspiration somewhere in The Koran.” (Shouted protests from a bearded man on my left: he may have been one of the Committee members.) “You may argue that these violent uses of scripture are perverse misunderstandings. But you have no monopoly of interpretation. So, let it be granted that we must ban nudey pictures from The Sun – why not also ban The Bible and The Koran? And what about The Communist Manifesto?”

I went on in this manner for seven minutes. I could write down more of what I said, but you probably get the drift. There were about half a dozen speeches from the audience. But I see no reason to summarise these. With the exception of one young woman, who spoke, with contempt plain on her face, about biological imperatives, these were uniformly risible. Only one man spoke. Like the one who raised that point of information, he was another of the girlie men you get in modern universities. He suggested that men should be educated into masturbating over pictures of old and ugly women, rather than women who look like Miss Zissman. Someone who described him or herself as transgendered got up for a long whine about “heterosexist dualities.” This set off a buzz of solemn apologising from everyone who had so far spoken. I wish someone had been filming this. I am sure some of you think I am making it up.

My closing speech went roughly as follows:

“What I shall most remember of tonight’s debate is the decidedly totalitarian state of mind in the audience. Do forgive me for what may be taken as a personal and unflattering reflection. But you may clothe your thoughts in soft and caring words about ‘changing the culture’ and ‘educating men about women.’ This does not hide the fact that many of you believe you have the right to interfere in the choices of consenting adults, and to make them think and live as you desire. You have no such right. No one has argued that the models who pose for The Sun are compelled to take their clothes off. Nor has it been shown that anyone is forced to buy The Sun. These things being so, you have no right to interfere.

“Let me put this to you. Every time you argue for something to be banned or regulated, you are asking for the empowerment of people you do not know, who are not accountable to you, who probably do not share your values, and who will, sooner or later, use that power in ways that you find shocking. Just because your people are currently in charge does not mean that they will always be in charge.

“In closing, I will remind you of a well-known statistic. Every night in this country, an average of 15.5 million people have sex with themselves. There is nothing you can do about this, and it is none of your business to try.”

I made this statistic up on the spur of the moment. No one asked any of the obvious questions about methodology. Needless to say, my side lost the vote. Half the men present voted for the motion. Most of the rest abstained.

When I was an undergraduate thirty years ago, one of the mature graduate students told me that the quality of debate was far below the standard of his own undergraduate days. By comparison with what I saw last night – and University College London is supposed to be one of the best universities in the world – the foaming lefties I knew at York were the equals of Burke and Fox and the Elder Pitt. I think he was wrong to hang so many of the lecturers. But I do think the Ayatollah Khomeini was on to something when he shut down all the universities in Iran for three years.