Sexism in Debating.

If you have a quick read of any UK newspaper in recent days you will see competitive debating in the headlines and not for good reasons. At the recent final of the Glasgow Ancients tournament hosted by the Glasgow University Union one team was subjected to aggressive sexist heckling.


How Scotland is always one of the more difficult places to debate. Heckling is far more common there than in most other countries. Generally it is something that you just have to get through. As a briefing at the World Championships once said "Scots are Rude. Accept it".  Heckling is something that is part of debating in front of a crowd of quick witted university students. 


However the most recent incident goes far beyond any acceptable form of heckling. One team were singled out for abuse. Not because they were arguing for something controversial. Not because they had done anything to antagonize the crowd. Not because they were embarrassingly bad due to being drunk.  I have seen people heckled for all of these reasons.   But in this case it was not heckling.  It was abuse. They appear to have been abused by a few members of the crowd simply because they were women. 

 We would not accept this form of abuse on the grounds such as race, disability or religion.  We should not accept it on the basis of gender.  Nor we should not assume that this is a uniquely Scottish issue. It isn’t.

 Unfortunately we can not expect that everyone in a debating crowd will be sensible.  There are some people out there that, due to immaturity or plain stupidity, can never be counted on to act reasonably. They probably think they are being clever and funny, partly because their friends think they are but mainly because the rest of the audience are afraid to tell them to stop. Debating is no more immune from the presence of idiots than any other group activity (e.g. some racist idiot throwing a banana at a black footballer).  Unfortunately unlike soccer we do not have an international governing body to step in and impose sanctions on clubs that fail to control their members/supporters.  These sort of incidents have to be policed by the debating community and by the people at the event.  What each of us must do is to make it absolutely clear that this sort of abuse will not be tolerated.


In my time chairing panels on the international debating scene I have, occasionally, had to turn around in between speakers to tell abusive audience members to shut up or even to throw them out of the room. This is the best way to control unacceptable abuse of speakers during a debate. Chairs of debates need to control the audience not just mindlessly introduce the speakers.  Society committees need to back up the chair by having an equity policy that makes it clear that severe sanctions will be taken against members who engage in unacceptable behaviour during debates.  Audience members need to take action and tell idiots around them to stop. 

 This incident has tarnished the reputation of our hobby. Each of us needs to make sure it does not happen again. 

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