The Blog

The Dawn of a New Union?

Is the Union running out of 'interesting' speakers? Or are they so preoccupied by the tired narrative Assange offers that they are turning back on their promise to update their structure and their substance?

In its marketing strategy this year, the Cambridge Union Society boasted of its status as the "oldest debating society in the world". I'm sure that this dazzling fact alone captured the attention, and investment, of many who are now eligible to vote on Assange's presence at the institution this term.

Branding itself as "the social centre of the University", the Union sells itself on its promise to remain relevant and to remain interesting. By positioning itself in this light, the Union recognises that its activities do not operate solely within the confines of the members-only club. Quite rightly, it recognises that its activities impact more laterally within the University. Indeed, the decisions the Union makes, as the self-proclaimed 'centre' of the University, do not affect members in isolation; they have ramifications across the city, and across all social groups.

All of those voting paid a significant amount of money to be part of this exclusive club. And all of them have been let down by this invitation.

Because Julian Assange is not interesting. Not if we define interesting in terms of being culturally relevant or compelling. This is the third time in four years that he has been invited to speak at the Union. Firstly, in 2011, amidst the furore of the WikiLeaks scandal. Secondly, in 2012, following his grant of asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in light of rape allegations and US evasions. And thirdly, today, at a time when neither his asylum status nor the allegations have changed. There is nothing new to be said that cannot already be found in his YouTube videos or his most recent appearance at the Oxford Union in 2013.

Is the Union running out of 'interesting' speakers? Or are they so preoccupied by the tired narrative Assange offers that they are turning back on their promise to update their structure and their substance?

I believe that this invitation is a sign of weakness. By inviting Assange, the Union reveals its inability to attract new, provocative, diverse speakers. It demonstrates its skewed priorities which have, for years, alienated women and minorities. It undoes the work of the many trying to improve it at a fragile time in which the institution is trying to be more open to women. The new invitation systems, women's public speaking workshops, and events such as the Consent Forum hosted earlier this term have been overshadowed, and disregarded, by this invitation.

Inviting Assange tells me that the Union is failing.

But this is not new. The Union recognises this problem. The membership figures and recruitment drives are forcing the Union to look for controversy wherever it can. And that is exactly what this invitation should be viewed as. There is no ethical or intellectual investment in Assange. There is only the desire to provoke those who are emotionally and psychologically at risk from the invitation. There is only the desire to goad those whose time could be focused on actually helping the individuals silenced by, and excluded from, this institution. And this comes at the expense of members, both literally and metaphorically.

I was invited to speak at the debate on Wednesday 21st October in opposition of hosting Julian Assange. I was invited because of the position I occupy as CUSU Women's Officer - a position which has traditionally been viewed as adversarial to the Union. I was invited because the Union recognises that their invitation to Assange poses a risk not only to the minority groups which I, as the only elected full-time liberation officer, represent, but also to the validity of the work they have been doing to include those minority groups.

It is with this work in mind that I rejected the invitation. Not because I do not oppose the invitation of Assange, but because I think the wrong thing is being debated. If you think the Union should exist purely to advance the cause of free speech and debate, then the Union could have invited a whole range of people who do not have criminal allegations over their head. And maybe they did. And maybe those individuals refused. And maybe that should highlight how the Union is perceived by those external to the University. But, whether they did invite them or not, the same question remains to be asked: what message is sent by this invitation? I believe that the message disseminated is that the Union is struggling to remain interesting. It is hitting out for controversy. It is being reduced to an antiquated relic, stuck in a time that has outgrown it. And I don't believe that this is what people pay for.

If members are looking for a fair debate, then they should abstain or vote no. Because so many women and minorities have removed themselves from the discussion for fear that they be subjected to vitriol on the grounds that they dare talk about their experiences. On the grounds that their narrative does not fit into the specific language prescribed by an institution which sees this debate as a yes or no choice, privileging the suggestion that we should even be having the debate in the first place. On the grounds that their well-being is put at risk by speaking out about the presence of a man who should never have been invited.

If members are looking for intellectual stimulation, then they should abstain or vote no. Because inviting Assange, yet again, is stagnation masked as controversy. It is an insult to the premise of centrality and the promise of fair debate that many of them signed up for.

This is not a referendum on Assange, this is a referendum on the Union. If it is to exist, then let it be better. If it is to continue, then let it change. Abstain, or vote no.

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