The York Dialectic Union is a relatively new society, dedicated to bringing quality speakers to the University. They host events, debates and talks on various topics which contribute to York’s intellectual community. If you think this sounds familiar, you’d be correct; York used to have a Dialectic Union which lost its momentum during the Covid-19 pandemic and had to close down. However, Adam Moses and the rest of the committee have worked hard to revive the society, and they have a year of exciting debates planned (including a special visit from Jeremy Corbyn in December). I spoke to Adam to find out more about it.
Why did you decide to restart the York Dialectic Union?
“I suppose for me personally, it was more of a personal project. It was a big undertaking, which was quite exciting to do. Obviously, you get to meet so many interesting people; people with such varied stories. I think that was it, really. It's a lot of work, and it's been a lot of work for quite a long time now. I mean, this current term card has been in the works since February this year. And just being a few of us, my personal responsibilities are quite extensive. I'm organising room bookings, I'm inviting guests, I'm doing all the social media. It's a lot of work, but I think the dialogue and the conversation which comes out of it, makes it so worth it.”
What has been your experience of starting, or more accurately restarting, a society? What's the process for that?
“It's been a big learning curve. I suppose, like most people, I'm not a big fan of bureaucracy, so dealing with the union and YUSU can be a drag. And that's just something that I'm struggling to get used to.
I know that if something needs doing, I can do it; I want to do it; I want to get things done but everything has to be approved by someone else. There are hoops that you need to jump through, which is just the way of the world. So I suppose that's been the hardest part.”
Has there been a particular challenge or setback you’ve faced, or something you hadn't anticipated being a problem?
“Obviously, the nature of the speakers that we're getting in requires a lot of navigating busy diaries and people pulling out last minute. We've got a debate on Friday and we've still not got anyone for the proposition – we've been looking for months – so I'm frantically emailing every Scottish nationalist that I can think of for it. I think that's one of the harder setbacks. But you've just got to keep on emailing, then keep on emailing even more.”
How do you source your speakers and encourage them to come to York?
“It's pretty much just sending hundreds of emails and hoping for the best. Throughout the emailing process and events which I've run in the past, I've started to build a bit of a network, but not enough to really leverage that yet, so it is still very much just sending emails. You'll send 100 emails, you'll get ten responses and only one of them will be a yes. It's a hefty enterprise.”
You mentioned that you've got Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the Union in December. How did you arrange that one?
“I emailed his wife back in February. We went back and forth until July, when he was originally confirmed for 3 November. Then last Friday, I was sitting in my bedroom doing some university work and my phone started going. I pick it up and lo and behold, it's Jeremy Corbyn on the other end of the phone apologising, saying, I can't make 3 November. He was so apologetic, really lovely on the phone. So now we've got 1 December confirmed and in the diary.”
What kind of topics do the debates usually/tend to cover?
“Last Friday we had ‘This House Believes there's still a Case for a Conservative Government’, which was defeated by a margin of 70 votes. Coming up, we also have ‘This House Supports the Dissolution of the United Kingdom’, ‘This House Believes there is Value in Arts Education’, which I think is a really interesting topic. We've got Jeremy Corbyn coming on 1 December. He's going to be participating in a debate on the introduction of wealth tax. So politics, economics, the arts; we want to cater for all different tastes.”
Is it difficult, in a university environment, to find people that will represent the more conservative view?
“Yeah, it is difficult. I think trying to win the motion from a few weeks ago, ‘This House Believes there's still a Case for a Conservative Government’ is almost impossible. So massive respect to James Clay and Matt Smith for publicly taking on that position in a university environment. I think it's very commendable. The arguments that they put forward were very good, James Clay especially argued that we've all got the same grievances and then suggested why a Conservative government might be better suited to dealing with those issues. In the end, it wasn't their night, but finding people who will take on those conservative views at university is quite respectable.”
What would you do if you had a speaker with a particularly controversial view? Is that/this something you encourage, because they have/everyone deserves the right to express their view? Or do you think it is inappropriate in a university?
“We want to create a space where we can have safe and open dialogue. If someone is going to come and convey hateful or vindictive rhetoric, the Union is not the place for that. If someone's going to convey views which may be contrary to the status quo or contrary to the establishment, we are a place where those opinions can be voiced. I want to bring these people in who have controversial ideas so students have an opportunity to critique them, to tell them why they think they’re misguided and create that dialogue.”
Speaking broadly, What kind of people do you think join the Dialectic Union?
“One of my big visions for the union is that I want it to be for everyone. Obviously, you can look at the Oxford Union and the Cambridge Union. They've got all the pomp and circumstance and the black tuxedos and all the bells and whistles. That's not the vision that I have for the Union here at York. I want it to be less intimidating for people; a society you can pop along to at the end of the day without needing to go home and get changed into a three piece suit. I think that's outrageous. That's the sort of union that I want to create; a union for everyone, where everyone can get involved.”
Leading on from that, how do you hope to make it an inclusive society?
“It's obviously a tough undertaking, as it's not until people have come along to an event that they realise it's quite laid back. The hardest part is getting someone to come along in the first place, in order to dispel those preconceived notions of what it's going to be like; the image of a B-tech Gentleman's Club or something like that, which is totally the wrong image.
I think the gender split at the events we’ve had has been good; better than expected but there's still work to do. I think our committee will continue to work on that.”
Jess Griffiths, Equity Officer of the York Dialectic Union added: “I think one of my biggest targets as Equity Officer is to invite a diverse range of speakers and guests for debates. There's a stereotype about societies like ours that the guests all fall into what we might call the 'pale, male and stale' category, and this is absolutely not our vision for the YDU. Our outreach team is busy all the time sending out invites, and we have a close eye on diversity when we're thinking about who we'd like to invite. I'm excited about what we've got in the works!
We also want to make sure that our events are welcoming and inclusive of everyone. We've got lots of photos on our Instagram so people can get an idea of what it will be like before they come along, and we think carefully about accessibility for all our events as well. I think what's also important is that we're really open as a committee to people's suggestions - if there's something that you feel would help make our events more inclusive and accessible, then we want to hear it! As Adam's talked about, we're finding our footing as a new society, and we're keen to get this right with the help of everyone who comes along to our events."
All information about York Dialectic Union’s events and membership can be found on their Instagram @theyorkdu.