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Cambridge Union debates whether ‘silence is complicity’ in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests





On Thursday, March 4, the Cambridge Union hosted a virtual debate on the motion ‘This House believes silence is complicity’.

Cambridge Black Lives Matter protest, September 12, 2020. Picture: George Tilley
Cambridge Black Lives Matter protest, September 12, 2020. Picture: George Tilley

The debate was chaired by Freddie Fisk, Union president for Lent 2021. It was held on Zoom and live-streamed on the Union’s YouTube channel, free for all to attend.

The first speaker for the proposition was Joshua Virasami, an artist, writer, and political activist, who has played a central role in both the Occupy Movement and the Black Lives Matter protests. His recent book How to Change It offers a guide for political activism in the 21st century.

He began by arguing that, if silence is complicity, then solidarity is “to be outspoken” and to be “actively dismantling” systematic racism. After the events of last summer, “none of us can pretend ignorance of the ordering, dehumanising violence of race craft that we feel on a daily basis”.

Mr Virasami was rebutted by Dr Remi Adekoya, a writer, journalist, and political scientist at the University of York. He highlighted how public debate is being increasingly driven by social media, and that the insistence that silence is complicity is unhelpful.

It encourages an “excessive amount of white virtue signalling”, he suggested, that can seem more concerned with being seen as anti-racist than with actually “tackling racism’s real-life consequences”.

In today’s world, “the emphasis on what is said is so strong”, that “you can cover up not doing much”, simply by “saying a lot”. Words can be “as useless as silence”, he said, if they are “not doing anything to actually better reality”.

The second speaker for the proposition was Abiola Ogbara, a student of human, social, and political sciences at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and academic school representative at the Cambridge Student Union.

Cambridge Black Lives Matter protest, September 12, 2020. Picture: George Tilley
Cambridge Black Lives Matter protest, September 12, 2020. Picture: George Tilley

She began by highlighting that systematic prejudice and racism is “deeply seated and ingrained” and that we must acknowledge these structures and “call evil by its name”.

She stressed the importance, in her view, of the decolonisation of the national curriculum: “We must unlearn and re-learn”, and it is imperative to teach our “imperial legacy”, “no matter how ugly it gets”.

Second for the opposition was Saron Mehari, a history and politics student at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, and current president of the Cambridge African and Caribbean Society.

She began by stating that “the idea that silence is inherent complicity now frames new-age activism” and is “inadvertently causing damage to such movements”.

By fixating on silence, she said, we forget to ask ourselves, “who is being allowed to speak, what is being said, and when will there be action?”.

She argued that we must consider “whose voice is important”, if we are “really trying to bring about change, freedom and liberation” in the “right way”.

The final speaker for the proposition was Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University. His research focuses on grassroots organisations and resistance to racism.

He referenced Martin Luther King in highlighting that there is a “long tradition” to the idea that “speaking up” is “absolutely essential” in dealing with injustice.

We have a “framework of understanding that never talks about race”, he said. The United Nations, for example, “never talks about the biggest issue, which is racism”, and we cannot deal with this simply by “being silent”.

Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020
Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020

Rounding off the debate was the final speaker for the opposition, Sunder Katwala. He is the director of the think tank British Future, research director of the Foreign Policy Centre, and commissioning editor for politics and economics at the publisher Macmillan.

While agreeing that “voice can matter if it is useful”, he argued that silence might also be so. “Silence might be listening”, he said, “it might be thinking and contemplating”, “it might be a prelude to action”.

He stated that the “accusatory tone that silence is complicity” will make people “hesitate more” in their engagement with anti-racist movements and causes.

No vote was taken for this debate, due to concerns about the integrity of the vote form on YouTube on such a sensitive issue.

For more information on the Cambridge Union, visit cus.org.

Read more:

Cambridge Union debates whether or not the United Kingdom is still united

Black Lives Matter protest on Parker’s Piece can lead to new platform in Cambridge, say organisers



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