November 22, 2011
Selfish and Deluded
Tonight I intended to briefly join the protest at Cambridge University against Universities Minister David Willetts. Arriving at the venue at 5.55pm, however, the protest was already over. So I decided to go inside and listen to the advertised speech and debate.
Willetts was introduced – with an explicit appeal for reasonable discussion – and the man himself took the stand.
But as he began speaking, he was immediately interrupted. A single individual – whom I shall not name – began shouting. His every line was immediately repeated by 20-30 or so others. Thus began a long, ponderous series of declamations, bizarre poetic allegories, and varying denunciations of Willetts, his Government, the future of education, and everything in between.
Willetts could not get a word in edge ways. And it was horrible. The tension in the room was dramatic. Despite calls from the floor – mostly from Cambridge academics who had come for a debate – for this to stop, it continued unabated. Turgid, self-indulgent, incoherent, and pretentious would only just about cover the contents of this “speech”. It felt like it went on and on. Shout then chant, shout then chant. What was probably only 7 or 8 minutes was experienced as 30.
When the “speech” from the floor was over, the instigators began chants of “Willetts Willetts Willets, Out Out Out”, and surged forward. They took the stage. Willetts had already left. By 6.20, the event was abandoned. A hundred or so other people were forced to exit without being able to voice their opinion or take part in the public debate they were invited to attend
I left the hall angry, disgusted and embarrassed. And I write as somebody who took part in the Cambridge Occupation last December, and has attended several recent protests against the Government’s cuts. I’ve been through my fair share of kettles and marches to get to this point.
This “action” was organised by Cambridge Defend Education, or “CDE”. Perhaps “Childish Deluded Egomaniacs” would be a better rendering. CDE claim to be upholders of free speech and democratic fairness. Yet they presumed to speak on behalf of myself and every other person in that room, whilst disregarding our rights, opinions, concerns and beliefs entirely.
CDE will no doubt claim – as at one point in the rambling “speech” it was indeed claimed – that having a debate with Willetts was pointless anyway. As we all know, he and this Government have already decided what they are going to do, and public engagements are largely cosmetic PR exercises.
There is of course a great deal of truth to this claim. So let’s take it to its logical conclusion. If the debate was not going to ultimately change anything, what, exactly, could be achieved by disrupting it so completely and outrageously?
Two things: firstly, greatly offending and irritating all of those in the room who were not privy to CDE’s unilateral decision. The result was the wasting of their time, upseting them, making them feel marginalized, and in many cases also very angry. This is unacceptable and indefensible in itself. And it’s hardly a good strategy for winning friends either.
Secondly, it allowed Willetts to leave Cambridge being able to claim that he’d tried to engage openly, but that irrational, unreasonable, selfish students had prevented any constructive dialogue. Anybody who thinks that this “action” was a victory against Willetts is living in cloud cuckoo land.
There’s a considerable irony here too. One of CDE’s stated complaints about Willetts and his Government is that it is so sure of its own convictions they ride rough-shod over the opinions, concerns, rights and needs of others. And yet that is exactly what CDE did tonight.
I’ve had my run-ins with the Cambridge “activist community” before, leading me to urge that they think a little more carefully about the certainty of their convictions. Tonight demonstrated some of the worst excesses of selfish, childish, self-righteous, politically imbecilic stupidity imaginable.
It was a show of disguised selfishness; the indulgence of a self-satisfied false moral superiority fraudulently passed off as bravery on behalf of others. Others who were never consulted, engaged, or allowed to speak for themselves.
Here’s a short video. You can see me walking out at the end, stopping the main “speech” maker on the stairs to tell him he was not speaking for me.
The text of the absurd “speech” delivered from the floor has been posted online. Quite spectacular is CDE’s lack of self-awareness or sense of unwitting parody.