Debating ‘Safety’

This past weekend, Victoria University in Wellington held some fancy debating competition, with kids from around NZ and Australia. One of their moot topics was somewhat insensitive, to put it mildly. They debated the topic that “This House, as a parent, would tell their daughter to drink responsibly to avoid sexual assault”. It’s raised a bit of a fuss, and with good reason.

There are reports of very upset young women and insensitive mockery by young men. There have also been reports by officials and staff of the competition that no tears or complaints occurred. So the water is muddy, but that doesn’t have much bearing on the topic, which is problematic in itself, no matter what the reactions to it were.

One in five women have been sexually assaulted, and many of them have been told it’s their fault because they had been drinking. The debaters were Uni students, at the age where alcohol consumption and not-rape are at a peak. So in this group, there is a good chance that there will be sexual assault victims, or friends of sexual assault victims. This topic always had the potential to trigger some of the young people involved. It has the potential to trigger women of any age or social group, because sexual assault is so damn prevalent.

Someone pointed out that this is a private debate, and that this would never be sent out as a public debating topic. It was just an intellectual exercise. Challenging topics are important to debaters, because it teaches them to argue things that are difficult to them, and they learn how to make an argument without becoming offensive.

This may be true, and it is supposed to be no more than an exercise, but this crosses a line. It’s going to hurt some of the people involved far more than, say, debating female ordination with Catholic participants. That sort of thing isn’t tied to such a painful, personal, deep-seated reaction. This is more like going to Syria and asking their University debating team to debate ‘that chemical weapons should be used on a civilian population’. It’s raw, it’s painful, and it is cruel.

Maybe it is important to debate some of these things. Making something like this taboo just allows misogynists to stay set in their ways, passing on the culture of victim-blaming. There needs to be debate in the public forum about what is and is not victim-blaming, and what is and is not acceptable to expect of young women. The way this was proposed, however, was as a part of a competition that each team were in to win. Stepping out of it would mean losing the debate, and in a competitive arena, backing out is near-unthinkable. In public, for the most part people can decide whether to be part of the debate or not.

The officials overstepped the line of acceptable debate in the forum they created, and potentially re-victimised young women. The official response of ‘we thought about this really hard and decided that it would be ok’, followed by ‘well, we didn’t see anyone upset about it’ is completely inadequate. Just as you wouldn’t ask Holocaust survivors to debate whether the gas oven was the best instrument of mass murder, you shouldn’t ask a population who have been widely traumatised to argue the ifs and whats of what they’ve gone through.

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