No Politics Tuesday: A Debate At The Oxford Union

(Publisher’s note-Dr. Christopher Carpenter is a professor of communications at Western Illinois University whose research focuses on campaigns…which makes people like him among the very few who enjoy election years as much as twisted political junkies like myself. This year, Dr. Carpenter published an article that was, as Bob Uecker would say, “just a bit outside” his area of emphasis. Entitled, “Narcissism on Facebook: Self-promotional and anti-social behavior”, it soon caught fire. Many readers in The Rational Middle will have their own experiences to share regarding this topic. His article was noticed by the folks at Oxford University, and he was invited to debate at the Oxford Union against a team featuring, among others, U.S. Senator David Vitter (R) of Louisiana. What follows are Dr. Carpenter’s experiences, posted with his permission.  If you are interested in the original material, I have posted a link to the abstract here, the full article is, alas, behind a pay wall.-MC)

The 28 hours or so that I was in England were so jam-packed with “adventure, excitement, and really wild things” that I felt that I had best get all the details down before my fragile memory starts falling apart. Also, I figure if you all read this on Facebook, it will save me the time of telling you all later in person.

After a night of minimal sleep on a British Airways flight, I arrived at 10AM at Heathrow airport outside of London. After groggily making my way through customs, I found a friendly driver named Joe waiting for me and literally holding a sign with my name on it. He quickly led me to his black Mercedes Benz and we were off on a drive that was roughly an hour to Oxford. He was full of interesting information. In particular, it was about to be the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend. He informed me that her majesty’s government was strongly recommending that no one attempt to drive into London for the festivities due to the inevitable traffic difficulties. They were also planning on shutting down every bridge over the Thames on Saturday because the Queen was planning on a river ride on her official barge. Everyone in England was getting a four day weekend for the celebrations and many were patriotically taking holidays in other countries. Regarding the zoo that was to be the London Olympics, he noted that many people were planning on leaving London and renting their flats for as much money as they would usually earn at their jobs in an entire year. He also told me that a few weeks before the Oxford Union debate had been about prostitution and that he’d escorted the owner of the Las Vegas Bunny Ranch from Heathrow. Apparently he was very nice and he even brought his girlfriend/ employee.

Joe safely deposited me a Exeter College and told me he would be back for me at 11AM the next day. I checked into my room at Exeter College (one of the older colleges that comprise Oxford, it is the fourth oldest college having been founded in 1314). Once I had spoken to someone to get some internet and emailed Neala, I settled in for a four hour nap. Arising, I cleaned myself up and donned my tuxedo, including a hand tied bow tie. I still had over an hour to spare so I went to a couple of bookstores, including Blackwell’s Bookstore. It is an enormous bookstore but I managed to restrain myself to a few purchases. I obtained a volume containing all of Jane Austen’s letters for Neala, a copy of Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s Oxford (appropriate I thought), and a short primer on science fiction. I went back to Exeter to meet the Oxford Union member who was to escort me to the Oxford Union.

The first event was pre-dinner drinks in an old library with many of the crests of the colleges of Oxford painted on the ceiling. I had just a bit of Scotch and asked any Oxford Union member who I spoke with to point out his or her college’s crest on the ceiling for me. They were all very friendly. Here was where I met the people I was going to debate with and against:

This House Believes That Social Media has Successfully Reinvented Social Activism

Speakers in Proposition:

  • Senator David Vitter – Lawyer, and Senator for Louisiana USA
  • Mark Pfeifle – VP of S4Inc and former US Nat Security Advisor for President George W. Bush
  • Benjamin Cohen – C4 technology correspondent and ‘founder of’

Speakers in Opposition:

  • Mark Kersten – Author and creator of Justice in Conflict blog
  • Dr Christopher Carpenter – Prof of Communications at University of Western Illinois
  • Matt Warman – Consumer Technology Editor at The Telegraph
  • Robert Sharp – Head of Campaign & Communications at English PEN

Of course, the individual I was most excited to me was Mark Pfeifle as his life, for several years, was essentially an episode of West Wing. We had several discussions about what life in the White House was like including a description of the Situation Rooms (there are three) and occasions when he could use the oft used West Wing phrase, “can we have the room?” (apparently it only works if there isn’t anyone higher status than you). I asked him at one point during post debate drinks, “So Mark, what we really want to hear are the stories about being woken up in the middle of the night to come down to the situation room to save the world.” He just laughed and said it didn’t really work that way.

After pre-dinner drinks was obviously dinner. Luckily I remembered the order of forks though I did forget that salt shakers have less holes than pepper shakers. I declined the glass of port wine after the meal as I felt I should probably stay on my toes. Dinner was good although I wasn’t fond of the fish course, I did enjoy the sesame salad with strips of duck. Following dinner, we all posed for a group photo. I happened to be seated next to Mark Kersten, whom I had yet to speak to. It turns out that he and I have a mutual acquaintance. In all the excitement of my trip, I had forgotten that I actually knew someone who lived in England, namely, Elizabeth Schmelzel. She has just started at The London School of Economics as an M.A. student where Mark is a PhD student. Apparently they had spoken and it came out that Liz and I knew each other from high school debate. A small world indeed. She had asked him to say hello and I of course sent my greetings back. Hi Liz!

So then there was the debate itself. There wasn’t as much direct clash as competitive debates. In fact, most of the invited speakers had prewritten speeches that they had typed and were holding as they spoke. I had about seven or so note-cards with some arguments and information I had found in my academic research on the topic. This choice allowed me to be a bit more flexible. When it was my turn to speak, I also chose not to simply stand next to the dispatch boxes as my colleagues had. I roamed around the hall a bit as I felt that as a Communication Professor, it would be bad form if I didn’t demonstrate good public speaking. Ultimately, the speakers in favor of the proposition told some specific stories about the ways that social media had helped social activism. Mark Pfeifle told some moving stories about how social media had galvanized public action by publicizing the various government’s actions (he famously proposed in the press ago that Twitter be given the Nobel Peace Prize). Senator Vitter spoke about the use of social media in American Political campaigns. On my side we coalesced around the idea that the proposition specified “has successfully transformed” which meant that it had to already be a successful tool. That opened up the ground for us that although social media had some successes, our burden was to prove that it wasn’t quite successful yet.

I made several points that I had found evidence for in the Communication literature on social media and activism. In particular, I argued that the decentralized nature of social media causes problems due to lack of coordination and sound planning. I had several specific examples of that. I discussed how face-to-face interpersonal communication was required for real movement building as you can’t ask someone to die for a cause via Twitter and referred to researchers who had done interviews with social activists who echoed that assertion. I also discussed how oppressive regimes like Syria and Iran were using social networking against activists. In that context I pointed out that “even the American Republican party is using social media” which may have implicitly drawn a parallel between oppressive regimes and Republicans. Right as my time was running out I closed with two points: “Remember, social activists were able to bring down oppressive regimes long before social media. Did Frodo need Twitter to defeat the evil Lord Sauron in Lord of the Rings? I think not. And if you are still not sure how to vote, I’m getting married in two weeks and none of you have gotten me a present.”

I spoke third for my side and after the first three speakers on each side, they opened the debate up to speeches from the floor. During one of them, a speaker had said that social media had been necessary to organize people to let them know where protests were during the Egyptian debates. Robert Sharp stood for a point of information and asked, “Didn’t everyone already know where Tahrir Square was?” and this comment seemed to have gone down rather well.

In England’s parliament, they vote by walking out either the door marked “Ayes” or the door for “Noes.” This practice was maintained here. After the debate, we were all standing around and shaking hands and such but I was keeping an eye on the people walking out the doors. We then retired to the library again for post-debate drinks while we waited for the final tally. I think there were around 100 or so people there and my side won about 2/3 of the vote. Before it was announced, several Oxford debaters had actually told me they thought my side had won by a landslide. Before the debate, the Oxford debaters had told me that they thought the winning side was usually the one that made specific arguments rather than trying to make sweeping claims and I think my side did that well.

After most people had left and I think the only speakers remaining were Mark Pfeifle and I, some of the Oxford Union members were going to a bar and they asked us to come along. They gave us directions and Mark and I set off. When we arrived, still clad in tuxedos, the bouncers wouldn’t let us in because it was a “student night” and we didn’t have student IDs. So we went back to our respective lodgings. I put on more comfortable shoes and set back out with my camera. I then ran into the Oxford Union president and a couple of other Union members and I explained my difficulty at the bar. They walked me there and one of them, a helpful and friendly fellow also named Chris went and spoke to the owner. The owner came down and then they let me in. It was like any undergraduate bar you’d find in the U.S. Cheap drinks, people availing themselves in excess of those cheap drinks, and loud music. I had a drink and made my excuses and left.

Then I wandered the streets of Oxford for a couple of hours. My good sense of direction was essential as the town is not exactly laid out in any sensible order. I came across a food truck and ordered what sounded like the most interesting item: jacketed potato with cheese and sweet corn. It turned out to be a big baked potato with butter and cheese and then what appeared to be an entire can of corn opened and dumped on it. I thought it was pretty good.

I got about 5 hours of sleep, packed my things up and set out for a couple more hours of Oxford before my driver would return for me. I saw the hall that was designed by Christopher Wren in the 17th century where Oxford students graduate. I saw the first examination room in Oxford for Trinity college that included a chair made from the ship that Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the globe. I walked around the grounds of the The Bodleian Library, the oldest and largest of Oxford’s libraries but I did not have time to take the tour. I picked up an Oxford University hoodie and another book at Blackwells about the connection between psychology and ethics by Eric Fromm. Then Joe picked me up and I was off to Heathrow airport. Joe pointed out Windsor Castle in the distance.

Once there, the first thing I did was find a bar where I could find a Pim’s Cocktail as Joe and I had been discussing cocktails. He noted that it was just the thing for a summer evening. It was quite good. While at the airport, I read Lyra’s Oxford, which was really fun to read immediately after visiting there. Lyra was quite detailed in her descriptions and I found myself marveling that I had just been by the places she described. The best part was the the fictional Jordan College she lived in turned out to be located exactly where Exeter College stands. Essentially my room was in Jordan College.

That rounds out my trip. Neala braved the Chicago traffic to pick me up from the airport, we had Portillos, and then we were home.


The Rational Middle will return Wednesday with a look at the Wisconsin recall election and, as always, is listening…