James Delingpole

There’s a right way to lose at the Oxford Union. I did the wrong way

They don’t do humour, the Stepford Students. So I’d give it to them straight

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

The way not to win a debate at the Oxford Union, I’ve just discovered, is to start your speech with a casual quip about Aids. It wasn’t a scripted joke. Just one of those things you blurt out in those terrifying initial moments when you’re trying to win the audience over with your japeish, irreverent, mildly self-parodying human side before launching into your argument proper.

It only happened because when my turn came to speak there wasn’t any still water for me to drink and I was parched. So various Union officers proffered me the dregs of the other speakers’ half-drunk bottles. ‘Oh my God, I might get Aids,’ I ad-libbed, to no general amusement whatsoever. From that moment things only went from bad to H.M. Bateman.

First it was just the odd groan and hiss of disapproval. But the longer I went on, the more it became clear that even the more tasteful, light and apolitical jokes I’d prepared were going down with the crowd like a cauldron of cold sick. As for my more trenchant offerings — on ‘cis gender’; on feminazis; on the ludicrousness of ‘safe -spaces’, etc — well if I’d just barbecued a kitten and offered round titbits to taste I doubt I’d have got a much less enthusiastic response. We lost the debate by an enormous margin.

Afterwards, the Union’s charming Aussie president explained where I’d gone wrong. ‘You were lost from the moment you joked about Aids,’ he said. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Really,’ he confirmed. ‘Cis gender, too. You can never joke about that,’ said one of his mates, sotto voce, glancing nervously over his shoulder. ‘Even saying the word makes me uncomfortable. You don’t know who’s listening.’

And the depressing thing is, they meant it. Of course, I should have known this from Brendan O’Neill’s heartfelt piece last year about Oxford’s mirthless, free-speech-averse Stepford Students. But until you’ve experienced it for yourself, you’re inclined to dismiss this stuff as journalistic licence. ‘Surely the place can’t have changed that much since I was here?’ you think.

It has, though. It’s like The Walking Dead. Especially in Wadham, apparently, where pretty much the entire college has been infected. (But then, Wadham, eh? Home of Terry Eagleton, the man who, in the only lecture I ever attended, told me it was just as valid to deconstruct the telephone directory as it was to read Shakespeare.) ‘Actually there probably aren’t all that many of them but their influence is disproportionate to their numbers,’ another undergraduate explained. ‘They’re so shrill and angry and difficult that everyone censors themselves just to avoid attracting their attention.’

Of course, you could argue, the lefty loons have always been with us. In my day, every college JCR was desperate to support the miners and rename its bar the -Mandela room. But this time feels different — for a number of reasons. One is the -cowardice — or, worse, eager acquiescence — of the authorities in the face of this pressure. When, last year, student activists sought to close down a Christ Church debate on abortion because the speakers were men (and therefore unqualified to talk about women’s experience), it was the college’s administrators — the censors — who actually cancelled the event in the name of sparing ‘residents’ ‘unnecessary distress’.

Another is the fanatical cry-bully solipsism of the activists. One of the arguments used in a (happily unsuccessful) attempt earlier this year to ban sub fusc (the formal clothing you wear for exams) was that being of medieval origin, it was inherently sexist and likely to put women at a disadvantage by making them feel excluded and uncomfortable. Such loons have probably always been with us but, thanks to the internet, their weird minority views now seem to them normal, and thanks to social media they have the power to spread a virus which might once have been contained within their lonely student digs.

But definitely the worst aspect of this navel-gazing obsession with trivia like ‘transgendered’ people, ‘safe spaces’ and (nonexistent) ‘rape culture’ is the crushing effect it has had on freedom of expression. Quite the most important thing I learned in my time at Oxford is that, just so long as you can eloquently marshal sufficient evidence to support your case, you can argue any damn thing you want. Not only is it intellectually liberating but, as Milton argued in Areopagitica, it’s how we learn to differentiate good ideas from bad ideas: by testing them in the crucible of debate.

For my undergraduate generation — and I suspect for all those before mine — this was a given. Which is why when I opposed the motion ‘This house would break up media empires in defence of democracy’, it just didn’t occur to me till it was too late that it wouldn’t be enough merely to point out how illiberal and authoritarian it was; that first, I’d actually have to spell out why illiberal and authoritarian were bad and why free speech is preferable.

If I could do my turn all over again last Thursday, I’d go in much harder. There’d be no lame jokes or flip asides, no doomed attempts to ingratiate myself with kids mostly so brainwashed that all one of the left-wing speakers had to do to elicit a roar of smug consensual laughter was to utter the words ‘Fox News’. Instead, with weary patience I’d explain how the moment we lose sight of why ‘free speech’ matters is the moment we surrender the keys to the enemy at the gates. I would still have lost the debate. But the next evening there would have been those events in Paris…

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Marcus

    I like you…. but, you spend your life debating with Leftists and you start a debate aimed at Oxford Uni students with an AIDS joke?
    This is deeply worrying.
    You can not debate Leftists by being a) flippant or b) make sweeping right wing generalisations, that are seemingly nasty (funny or otherwise).
    Anyone with any insight would know this and yet you do all of the above.
    Understand this: the issues at stake – property rights, freedom of speech etc. are not funny, they are deadly serious. By being flippant or trying to be funny you immediately loose the debate.
    Watch Ron Paul, Paul Rand, Maggie, Farage, even Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin.
    Watch Gavin Mc Innes on youtube.
    Watch a Lefty like Amis offering a right wing opinion. The list goes on. Do some homework.
    Watch them and learn before you go on tv again and claim to represent right wing thought.
    Farage is popular mainly because he manages to articulate right wing thought on tv without looking like IDS, Redwood, Liddle or you.
    If you get asked again to be on tv, please ask me for some coaching. I would be very happy to help.

    • I agree. Forget humour, just crush them with facts and logic. I’ve had to deal with these self-righteous little gobshites on the stump. They have two vulnerabilities: firstly, they are teenagers in age or spirit, and have too little life experience to return fire effectively, and secondly, they have little experience of fending off alternative views because they seek to simply exclude all dissent.
      Meanwhile, I wonder how long it will be before western universities start to pay the price in pounds and pence enrolment for becoming hotbeds of leftwing totalitarianism?

    • ill-liberal

      Gavin McInnes ???? He’s the biggest wind up merchant on the planet. I like him for the same reason I like Delingpole (and Liddle for that matter) and that’s because they don’t care to censor their speech to fall into the line that these idiots try and push us all into.

      • Marcus

        Yes, but he does win and he certainly never looks weak.
        He uses Lefteing insults back at them and they can not respond.

    • wudyermucuss

      To debate leftists:

      Remain calm;they will insult,label,ridicule

      Use broken record technique,repeating the facts

      Be prepared to be ostracized,lose friends,jobs etc

      Realize that discretion is the better part of valour and that not joining campaigns,agreeing with comments,how you dress,what programme you watch,paper you read,are all statements of belief;with the left/libprogs,the saying empty vessels make most sound is proven.

  • Tamerlane

    C’mon be honest, you do this for the thrill of a good old wind up, just to get under their skin and see how thin skinned, self important and faux sensitive they are. For which I don’t blame you. But bare in mind, that what they learn at Oxford (or the other) they take to Parliament ten years later. More refined, more subtle, wrapped in better intellectual swaddling clothes perhaps but,nevertheless, the standard currency of your average centrist/centre left clueless career politician. Sad really.

    • Todd Unctious

      Please bear in mind the spelling is bear in mind not “bare in mind”. Though I have often considered your mind to be bare.
      But then you like a good wind up Tammy.

    • But they’re out of step. Multicultural diversity safe spaces cr*p is 10 years out of date and anyone trying to peddle it will find themselves in a dramatic confrontation with reality. The country – and Europe – is moving right, and it’s still got a long way to go.

  • MikePage

    And of course it was their fault. Seriously, where’s the joke? It comes across as gratuitous unpleasantness.

  • as2191

    Why does the date at the top of the page say “21 November 2015”?
    As I write, it is currently 19 November 2015…

    • davidshort10

      I am guessing you are not an Oxford graduate if you can’t figure this out – or perhaps someone who didn’t even make it from infants to junior school.

    • Mc

      I’ll give you a clue: this online article is also printed as a hard copy magazine.

    • Jean de Valette

      Because it is going into the actual magazine, which comes out on the 21st.

  • Michael H Kenyon

    “No platform for fascists.” So don’t give talks for them.

  • Avoided Cranium

    Very disturbing account. Sounds like Oxford is trying to reverse the Age of Enlightenment. A sort of Marcus Brigstock Borg Entity without the humour.

  • Cambridge is no better – the student organisation there demanded that David Starkey be removed from a film because of his past “racism” and “sexism” and the university gave in. Apart from Buckingham I can not think of any British university that is not a leftist brainwashing centre – surely it is time to end taxpayer subsidies for these places. The do not stand for a fearless intellectual exploration – they stand for closed mindedness. Frankfurt School – Political Correctness, “Critical Theory” which is totally uncritical of leftist assumptions.

    • Robbydot1

      I’m sure a lot of the problem is that we now have far too many in University who shouldn’t be there, they don’t have the intellectual capacity.

      • Mr B J Mann

        Far too many?

        Most “University” “Students” these days are kids who wouldn’t have been able to cope with O Levels, never mind A Levels, a generation ago.

        Now they supposedly have a handful of straight A A levels and a degree?!!

        • Mr B J Mann

          Oh, and most professional jobs, like managing banks, were done by people with A Levels.

          Nowadays they try to dumb down degrees enough so that they can teach Rocket Science to kids who couldn’t cope with CSEs.

          And we’ve all seen how well that worked when they went into banking!

    • wudyermucuss

      It is every bit as sinister as Mao’s cultural revolution.
      It can,and does cost you your job.
      Does anyone seriously believe saying,for example,”I think multiculturalism is a disaster”,or,”I don’t think homosexual marriage is right” or “I think Islam is a massively disproportionately violent ideology” will not hamper your career or worse?
      Living in a society where the majority or sizeable minorities are sanctioned is a recipe for disaster and can,will,lead to actual extremism.

    • goodsoldier

      They get millions from the EU annually. 7,733,611 €–EU contributions to the BBC YEARLY

      LINK: http://ec.europa.eu/budget/fts/index_en.htm

      Link above to find out who gets payments from EU annually

      NATIONAL UNION OF TEACHERS: 1,370,000 €/yearly

      Birmingham city council 9,592,972 €

      324,823,397 €–OXFORD UNIVERSITY

      245,967,687 €–Cambridge University

      286,271,219 €–UCL

      Durham 51,677,768 €

      14,137,890 €–Essex Uni

      westminster city council–7,999,652 €

      Leeds Uni-145,781,877 €

      cardiff councill-5,738,566 €

      cornwall council-18,000 €

      And the list goes ON and ON–

    • Agree. I think of them as factories of ignorance.

    • Mr B J Mann

      “racism” and “sexism”?!

      OK, he’s White British.

      But he’s a g-y cr!pple!!!!!!

      What chance have the rest of us got?!?!?!!!!!

  • justejudexultionis

    Dellingpole is a notorious troll. His sneer is palpable.

    • ohforheavensake

      He’s also not good at losing. It’s the same as Brendan O’Neill- they go out into the world, they find that people don’t actually like them, then they retreat to places like The Spectator to lick their wounds.

      • Robbydot1

        What must it be like in your world???

      • wudyermucuss

        For various reasons,we live in a society where only certain views are expressed in public.
        It is very Maoist.
        Hence:hate speakers at Islamic conference in Bedford – not a tweet.
        Historian with views on sex,gender and race censored from his university’s promo video.
        Don’t confuse tweet/#tag/media “controversies” with public opinion.

      • WFB56

        Actually, they are the opposite as they use their real names and appear in person to voice their views; you , by contrast, hide behind a silly pseudonym.

      • MikePage

        He’d have been OK if he hadn’t kept banging on about windmills. What a bore. The rest of us work for a living; what makes him so special?

    • Robbydot1

      Not sure you’ve fully grasped the meaning of troll?

  • MrBishi

    It’s not the winning or losing that matters, but the taking part…
    BTW, there’s no such thing as “free speech” in the UK, you need to be very wealthy to buy a newspaper.

    • Javelle

      Please — you needn’t be wealthy to talk freely.

      • MrBishi

        And when you speak freely, you influence how many people?
        Ignorance is not only bliss, it allows others to manipulate the truth in their own self interest.

  • ohforheavensake

    James- it’s not them: it’s you.

    Oh, and by the way, that AIDS joke- it’s actually not funny. I don’t think you’ve actually noticed.

    • wudyermucuss

      True,but humour,(and sexual fantasy) is how humans express the unexpressable.
      Thought control leads to bad places.
      It’s the tip of the isisburqua.

    • Dominic Stockford

      No, it isn’t. Hepatits, now that would have some accuracy, and could be construed as a bad joke…

  • Suzy61

    Meanwhile, over at the ‘Indy’, the same types are wrestling with the knotty problem of elderly relatives posting unsuitable messages on Facebook.

    What to do when Auntie Gladys spouts out vile, racist, Neo-Nazi hate-speech, such as…. ‘is it time for Britain to close it’s Borders’?

    The writer tells us how she deals with the opinion of those differing with her world view – she simply ‘un-friends’ them.

    As for embarrassing members of her family? She ‘hides’ their posts.

    I wonder what Auntie Gladys should do about relatives that embarrass her?

  • Alex Jackson

    Nope, the students got it right this time.

  • wudyermucuss

    South Park is bang on,as usual,with PC Principal,it’s right on,PC thug new character.
    Infraction bro,followed by a micro offense,not tolerated here bro.

    • trobrianders

      Wait til Cartman gets on to it bro.

  • mikewaller

    “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom on conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them” .

    I think there is more sense in those 32 words of Mark Twain than there is in the whole of Delingpole’s oeuvre. The right to say things that genuinely give deep offense to others – I do not here mean just the sad poseurs to whom JD rightly takes exception – is so important, that its use should always be carefully considered. Stupid throwaway jokes about Aids, gender or whatever do not pass that test. In contrast, if there is truth in press reports that some American Law faculties have ceased to give lectures on the law surrounding rape for fear of upsetting students who have suffered sexual abuse, that would be a case worthy of full-blooded challenge.

    One other point. Delingpole’s ludicrous defence of our lack of restrictions with regard media ownership is, at best, misguided, at worst self-serving claptrap. To have allowed so few individuals – including foreigners and tax exiles – to gain such mastery over our media as to have our politicians reduced to kissing their proprietorial backsides, is a matter of national shame. As Delingpole’s much smarter contemporaries must have pointed out, democracy is not well served when such crucial institutions come under so few self-serving thumbs.

    • LG

      Unusual to find such sense in these pages.

      • mikewaller

        It is hard work that often entails holding one’s nose, but I do think it our duty to try to bring some enlightenment to the many sad sacks who infest this list! [:-)].

    • hobspawn

      I’ve seldom read such bollocks. Let me précis:

      “Stupid jokes about gender must be punished by rape. Proprietors are shameful! Vote Corbyn”

      That about sums it up.

      • mikewaller

        Complete travesty in respect of what I actually said. Dr. Goebbels would have loved you.

    • artemis in france

      You’re right about the media being far from free and unbiased. James’s heart is in the right place bot he seldom does well when speaking. His forte is the written word when I very rarely disagree with him. However, just because he can be a bit gauche and undiplomatic doesn’t mean his views are nonsense.

      • mikewaller

        He can be a good TV reviewer. Otherwise, IMHO, his contributions hit the mark with a success rate much less than would be achieved by chance. His real problem is that he is an attention seeker who crassly over simplifies.

    • oldoddjobs

      Ooops, he failed your “test”. The naughty words and taboos change so often, he probably couldn’t keep up. It’s the current year, after all. Right side of history.

      • mikewaller

        What a mindblowingly fatuous observation.

        • oldoddjobs

          Wow…. just, wow. I can’t even.

  • beenzrgud

    Mr Delingpole, welcome to the leaders of tomorrow. Doesn’t the future look rosey ! 🙁

    • WFB56

      While I fear that you may be right, I hope that we will find that the general public will not elevate these people to Government and its a safe bet that most will be eviscerated if they enter the business world; there is hope.

      • Yes, I can’t see these people getting very far either. This isn’t 2005 and Blair’s not the Prime Minister.

  • nouveaulite

    I like JD and his selective way of thinking. When he, Fenbeagle and his elite commune of retarded fossil fuel lobby goons get together and rant on about how electricity generated from coal power will end by 2025….. no wait, we cannot mention the war on energy. Let’s have some more dog do yoghurt instead.

    • Swarm of Drones

      I can’t believe no one is yet shouting on this thread, shouting something like:



    • What a load of old cobblers!

      • nouveaulite

        Comrade, Oxford students just voted to stay in Europe after Bill Cash was found out lying.
        JD still hasn’t covered the coal power heist.
        Are you unbelievably thick?

  • Bob Hutton

    Perhaps these students have teutonic blood in their veins – “You should know by now, Frank, the Germans have absolutely NO sense of humour”.

  • jeffersonian

    James Delingpole is such an innocent to think he’d receive fair treatment at the Oxford Union: today sadly one of the crucibles (as is virtually all of academia) of the pathology undermining the West.

  • trace9

    There was an Oxford Union
    That loved a Delingpole
    But now he’s a blast
    From OUs’ past
    & He’s treated like a Troll..

    – Which, in many respects, he izzzzzz…

  • jim

    The idea that it’s only a minority that are cowing the supine authorities and those who just want a quiet life may provide some comfort…but I’m not sure it’s true.A good many people do seem to believe these stupid things.. My feeling is we should give ’em enough rope and let them hang themselves.Pretty soon they’ll be burning books.Allow them to reveal their true fascist colours.Let everyone see them for what they are.Don’t try and houstrain them. You will only be helping them to appear normal. This madness will have to burn itself out. We can aid this process by deliberately staging the events which seem to annoy them so much.All college authorities have to do is defend free speech. This vocal minority will do the rest and disgrace themselves soon enough.

  • Skyeward

    You are trolling us. AIDS jokes can only be pulled off by the current great equality-opportunity offenders like Seth Macfarlane, Amy Schumer, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Melissa McCarthy, etc. and everyone knows that. Agree the students suck. But they are basically unemployable since their antics are all over social media for hiring managers to see.

    • Gilbert White

      The Indonesian Government, was critised by the usual jokers recently about printing that Aids can be caught by sneezing. The doctors NGO’s and medics are truly evil criticising this. An aids sufferer especially in Indonesia is likely to be suffering from many other terrible, filthy, third world diseases. You could lose part of your lung just from being in the underground nowadays. Saint Diana , touched a clean specimen in hospital and had instant access to unlimited medical facilities which is more that can be said for the rest of us. Ask some truthful doctors if you can find one?

  • Jean de Valette

    My friends and I used to call Wadham “The People’s Republic of Wadham” in the mid nineties. And, bear in mind, I was a blind lefty then and so were my friends. That’s how bad Wadham was for this sort of thing, but it was mainly contained there. It sounds like the rest of the colleges have now been subsumed by this sort of claptrap. Very depressing.

    • rtj1211

      Ah, yes, but when I was at Cambridge, ardent Molesworth CND campaigners miraculously turned into rabid right wing Arthur Andersen clones once the milk round reality came along.

      Most students are just ‘me, me, me, give me more money, more food, more free beer, more free everything’ until they get a job, when they become ‘pay me more, make me pay less taxes, make those lazy commie students work harder!’

      If you assume that students are just self-centred, vain, egotistical, sex-obsessed teenagers you’d not go far wrong……

      • Jean de Valette

        Really? What college? Goodness.

        Molesworth makes life worth living, tho, so there’s that.

  • Sean L

    Aren’t media empires generally enemies of free speech? Though it’s the law on “hate speech” and its enforcement by zealous policemen as much as the nature of the media that curtails what you can say today. But you can still say what you like about the weather on Twitter. It’s only the media empires that enforce censorship in relation to “climate”. But if there’s a single justification for breaking up media empires I’d have thought free speech would be it, starting with the BBC.

  • The Mandela reference reminds me of a similar experience. Back in the 1980s at Sydney University I was part of an attempt on the Guinness world record for the longest debate. Since my turn to speak wasn’t slated till about 3am on a Sunday morning, I arrived by way of several Sydney pubs. Most of them, actually. When my turn finally came up, and with little idea of what I was going to talk about, let alone the subject of the debate, I spoke into the microphone: I just got kicked out of the Free Nelson Mandela Society. I paid the bloke my membership fee, then asked him, right mate, where’s my free Nelson Mandela? Needless to say it didn’t go down too well with the PC crowd – I got booed off the podium. Not nearly as bad back then as today’s campus insanity, but you could see its embryonic form.

    • adonbilivit

      Ha ha nice one

  • Mnestheus

    Poor Dellers could have reduced the Oxford glums to paroxysmal sniggers with a deadpan read of Mark Steyn’s take on British wine


  • haark

    A shame you couldn’t just have a debate with science- as opposed to ‘arts’ in its broadest sense- students.
    You would have had a much more sensible audience. Unfortunately, having done a real day’s graft, they would have fallen asleep in the debate- but still supported you in the vote.

  • Australian Inquisitor

    Wot, no jokes about AIDS??
    Policical correctness gone mad.
    Next, they’ll be saying you can’t crack a joke about darkies and poofs

    • Observer1951

      Of course you can crack gay jokes what you can’t use is the derogatory word ‘poof’.

      • oldoddjobs

        Thanks for your permission. Keep us updated on the list of naughty words, won’t you?

      • Harryagain

        How about dung punchers?

    • oldoddjobs

      You’re right – we must never make jokes about our ethinc pets. They’re not like us, and they never will be. At the same time, everyone is the same and equal. Don’t let another goodwhite hear you say “darkie” because that would be shameful. You don’t want to be considered a badwhite by the other goodwhites, do you?!

  • mikewaller

    Yet another reason for thinking JD a one-eyed clown emerged this morning. What I take to be the lead cartoonist for “The Times” was on Radio 4’s “Start the Week” bragging about how much freedom of expression he is given, his being somewhat left of centre notwithstanding. Then another guest asked him if he would ever produce a cartoon mocking Murdoch. Not only did he say he wouldn’t, he went on to make clear that he would not be allowed to. I have little doubt that the same is true in respect of all organs owned by that minuscule elite with massively disproportionate power and influence which I see as a great evil and term the proprietocracy and which JD so assiduously defends. In stark contrast, on the much reviled BBC, in very recent memory one John Humprhys played a major role in destroying the career of his Director-General. Is it not about time that Delingpole made a serious effort to abide by the principles he claims to espouse rather than being guided by his career interests?

    • adonbilivit

      Yes we need the BBC, to defend all things PC and left wing

      • mikewaller

        We need the BBC as it is our only bulwark against the appalling proprietocracy (amongst whom foreigners and tax exiles predominate) who control our right wing media with ruthless absolutism and thus enjoy hugely disproportionate influence over politics in this country. IMHO, those who take their side against the BBC largely comprise professional journalists cynically protecting their future income streams and sad sacks who are either giving unknowing expression to a deep sense of self-loathing, perhaps richly deserved; or deluding themselves into believing that by fawning to the rich and powerful they can somehow claim kinship .

  • edithgrove

    The aim surely was to get your point across, not to sabotage yourself with stupidity. It sounds like you kind of got what you deserved.

    • Ben Chilcot

      Stupidity? I wonder why dentists use gloves?

      • edithgrove

        Delingpole is a professional loser, much like his colleague Toby Young. If he thinks making a quip about aids aligns him with the freedom Parisians are defending he’s a fool, whether he’s left, right or centre. He belongs to a silly, flippant and ineffectual class and that is big reason we’re in our present mess and it’s time he and his mates woke up and got serious. IMHO.

        • trobrianders

          Yes Silly Little People educated at loonyversity don’t you know.

  • HJ777

    This left wing tendency to impose a collective view has been with us for as long as I can remember.

    When I was a student (over 30 years ago), the student union voted to join CND and to spend part of its budget on this membership. As I had no choice but to be a member of the student union, as the vote was taken in an afternoon by a show of hands when all the people studying serious subjects had lectures or practicals, and as students were perfectly at liberty to become individual members of CND if they wished, I was appalled.

  • Dogsnob

    That missing water: not an oversight.

  • They sound unbelievably thick!

  • adonbilivit

    Great stuff James. (From J S May)

  • Harryagain

    The living proof that there is no connection between intelligence, education and common sense.