Glasgow University Union: was abuse "just words"?

Children are always taught to repeat the ‘sticks and stones’ mantra because words are not supposed to hurt, words are not supposed to cause any real or tangible harm. Perhaps this is the ethos Rebecca Meredith, a top Cambridge debater, should have adopted earlier this month, when heckled at Glasgow University Union’s (GUU) most recent debating competition.

Except the words directed towards Ms Meredith and her partner, Marlena Valles, were not those attempting to engage in the cut-and-thrust of the debate under discussion, but were rather directed towards the very fact that these sharp-minded women supposedly had no place voicing their opinions, however well-founded they may have been, in the presence of a select few patriarchs.

Ms Meredith and Ms Valles were called ‘frigid bitches’ and subjected to sexist heckles that rated their physical appearances. Instead of applause, they were greeted with calls of ‘shame women’ and orders to ‘get that woman out of my chamber’ as they ascended the podium.

The majority of backlash has understandably, and quite rightly, focused on the inexcusable misogyny of the hecklers, yet what is perhaps most shocking is the suggestion repeated in the mainstream media that these debaters are simply not ‘cut out’ for the ruthless culture of the debating circuit if they cannot ‘hack’ the jibes of fellow audience members – a suggestion which is almost laughable given the very fact that the pair achieved finalist status at the Glasgow competition as well as Ms Meredith’s title as one of the world’s top 20 debaters.

The Spectator’s Gerald Warner stated that any strong debater ought to ‘riposte instantly and wittily against a heckler’ which was ‘clearly a skill [that] eluded the two women who have complained about being heckled’. Warner’s response is classic misogyny at its best; it victim-blames, it shifts the focus off the perpetrators and it implies that women simply cannot ‘handle the heat’ of a man’s world. Ms Meredith would have surely given a ‘witty riposte’ if the hecklers had responded in outrage to her potentially warped views on the centralization of religion – the topic under debate – but they responded instead to the ‘unacceptable’ notion of an individual with different body parts holding the intellectual court for a few minutes.

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Of course, the hecklers, and people like Warner, will downplay such violent sexism and discrimination with the oft-repeated ‘banter’ get-out-clause, an all too prevalent justification for “laddish” behaviour which is especially noticeable in university culture. Since the fallout from the debating event, several female students from Glasgow have reported that certain male GUU members often play a ‘game’ in which they physically pin-down a female student, timing how long they can maintain their grip until the girl breaks free – just another sad and deeply worrying indication of the persistence of a rape culture, increasingly normalized by websites such as ‘UniLad’ and other internet forums.

One such forum discussed Ms Meredith’s ‘rape potential’ with Internet users descending into graphic detail regarding the various ways in which they would sexually assault her. She claims that one user wrote that he would silence her using a ‘knife against her neck and [his] bony fingers scrabbling around inside her underwear’, a comment which has since been removed from the website.

The obvious extrapolation, if we are to play amateur – but perhaps not too inaccurate – psychoanalysts here, is that these types of ‘jokes’ come from a place of insecurity. Exerting physical force over a woman as sharp and strong as Ms Meredith, pinning her down and violating her sexually would be the only possible way that these misogynists could claim ‘superiority’ or ‘domination’ because in every other respect she comes out on top, she is the winner and she dominates.

The language Ms Meredith and Ms Valles were subjected to does matter. The insults hurled at these brilliant women are not just mere ‘words’ representing the superficial banter of a friendship group, but run much deeper and are indicative of a toxic culture of gender typecasting and sexual violence.

By changing words it is possible to veer society away from its current position perched on a knife-edge between equality and the patriarchal norms of nearly all societies across time and space. Perhaps by letting women have a voice – a right denied to the Cambridge debaters – this precarious position can be resolved.