Student politics is becoming narrower, polarising and hostile
In my first year at Sussex, one of the first things I was told about writing essays is that fence sitters aren’t welcome. To get good marks, you have to come down on one side of the debate, and you have to convince the reader why your argument is correct, without calling the issue at hand “complicated” or pointing out that “there are many factors to consider here.” As a fairly standard Sussex left-winger, I’ve argued against imperialism, cultural appropriation, rape culture, transphobia and other injustices that I feel are genuinely prevalent in society that need addressing through practical solutions and radical action.
I’ve also recently been considering the arguments for leaving the EU.
*Gasp* *Heckle* *Vomit*… the shock. Did somebody just throw an egg in my direction? Have I been excommunicated yet? I know, I couldn’t believe it myself. How could I, an intersectional feminist whose idea of a perfect world is a socialist utopia (with many cats) dare to cross the invisible line of the Brexit campaign and read opinions that are usually written by people who are ideologically against everything I believe in?
It’s called being an adult, putting my big-girl pants on and crossing the fence to at least talk to the poor souls on the other side. Try it. It might surprise you to find out that most of them are human beings with interests, ex-boyfriends, beloved pets, Adventure Time posters and dreams. It’s called looking at each other as humans, not sets of opinions. Trust me, I know how difficult it can be, especially when you believe that their opinions are a real and imminent threat to humanity. It’s just, recently I’ve realized that people can be fantastic thinkers and activists, but as soon as they reveal a tiny aspect of their personality to be out of line with our own beliefs, we utterly condemn them as being terrible people. We take a bad opinion, stretch it out like chewing gum and analyze every facet of it until we are satisfied that this person is indeed, a super villain, disguised as one of us.
This is resulting in a narrow minded, aggressive form of politics. We have started a system whereby people are either conformists to a particular set of beliefs or non-conformists. We’ve created a checklist, which we pull out and evaluate someone with if they hint at not ticking even one of the boxes. A friend of mine wrote an article a while ago, offering her opinion and criticism of the student occupation at Bramber house. We all know the exact article I’m referring to, because for a while it was more controversial than Will Saunders himself. The reactions to it however, were in my opinion the most shocking and saddening aspect of the ordeal. I saw progressive students that I’ve looked up to at university shooting the author down, calling her “dumb”, mocking her and accusing her of being imperialist. This culture is present in every political identity and it results in intelligent, kind and well-meaning people, like the author above, being made to feel like they are not wanted in any political sphere due to one opinion they hold out of hundreds.
Remember the case last year of the UCL professor, Tim Hunt, who made sexist jokes about women in science? I believe he hilariously quipped: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.” Hunt was a 70-something-year-old man, educated in a single-sex school with offensive and tedious views of women. He deserved to be told why what he said was wrong and how it caused real problems for women in science. Hunt was also a Nobel laureate. His work in cell division has had profound impacts in the area of medicine, particularly cancer research. It’s been just under a year since Hunt made his stupid remarks during his lecture, and he is now jobless after being forced to resign by UCL. His career is now defined by the mistake he made, rather than his brilliant accomplishments. Is this really just? When I eagerly ranted about him to my feminist friends last year, I never did so with the hopes that this man would have his life’s work undermined and his career ruined. These types of disproportionate reactions to people’s mistakes though, seem to be happening more often. We’ve stopped accepting that, as human beings, we each have faults and bad habits.
Real life isn’t an academic essay. This black-and-white mentality has seeped into our interactions with each other, even outside of student politics. We have to allow ourselves to step back and call an issue “complex” and consider both sides of an argument. It’s unrealistic to expect somebody to fit a precise mold of a Tory, or of a Socialist. More importantly, it’s destructive to human relationships and friendships. I don’t want to spend my last day of term sat in Falmer Bar debating lad culture with myself. I want to cultivate relationships and respect people as humans before my political beliefs end up taking over every realm of my life. What happened to striking up a discourse and challenging our political foes to a good old fashioned pub debate? Instead, people articulate carefully scripted arguments and insults in online comment sections and level personal attacks over Facebook messenger. It’s laughably depressing.
Here’s the thing: no matter which side of what fence we’re on, we’ve all reached this point during arguments where we think that we are genuinely privileging ignorant uneducated people around us with our opinions of the world. It’s a cringe-worthy symptom of educated snobbery and I’m done with it. It’s okay if someone wants to leave the EU. It’s okay if somebody doesn’t agree with a student occupation or protest. It’s okay if somebody feels more comfortable putting warnings in front of triggering content. We need to stop polarizing ourselves and viewing each other in black and white terms. It’s unproductive and child like.
Student politics is relevant and essential. I believe that some of the most radical changes on society start on student campuses. I’m entitled to hold that belief alongside the opinion that student politics is in danger of polarising people more than it unites them. Most of it comes down to taking a step back and gaining perspective. If you see a Badger article that you don’t like, stop accusing it of being “desperate” and of content baiting. Instead, write your own article explaining why you disagree with the opinion voiced, not the person who wrote it. Start engaging in mature and healthy discussions and have some humility. Acknowledge that every person has had different life experiences that have led them to their set of beliefs. Accept that this makes them human, not the enemy.