Think twice before you self-identify
Here at radical Sussex, racism, homophobia, sexism and other forms of bigotry and discrimination are rightly deplored. If I was to ask you now if you were pro-equality and opposed to all forms of discrimination, it is likely that your answer would be affirmative.
To those of us who are not white, able-bodied, British, upper-class, heterosexual males, the tolerance and support afforded to us here is a source of supreme comfort.
But do you believe in liberation, or just equality?
Some of us belong to a particular school of thought. This school of thought dictates that “equality” – which has conveniently become the latest political buzzword – does not cut deep enough. We believe that whilst equal treatment is all fine and dandy, it is not the end; it is a means to an end. We think that we have to go much further than attempting to be like everyone else; to “fit in” with society.
Instead, we need to transform society, destroying not only the endemic bigotry within it, but also the perceptions and societal roles that produce it such that we can foster a world free from oppression. Reader, we are liberationists.
The NUS’ liberation campaigns – LGBT; women’s; disabled students’; black students’ – support such values and seek to secure these aims. In fighting for them, the campaign groups, each of which are entirely autonomous from the main NUS executive, hold annual conferences to which all affiliated students’ unions send delegates who self-define within the classifications set by the appropriate campaigns. At each conference, delegates will elect committees and vote on policy areas for them to campaign around.
I have humongous respect for each of the campaigns and their work but I, like many people who take an interest in NUS affairs, am irritated by the reluctance to take a fresh look at the woefully low threshold of “self-identification” in light of rife abuse of the wideness of the provision.
Quite clearly, the essence of self-identification is that no-one has the right to challenge another individual’s assertions pertaining to their identity and it is a very well intended measure which I fully supported until I witnessed its practical realities. They provide that, I am sorry to say, the NUS liberation campaigns are doing themselves a disservice.
It is fundamentally crucial that delegates to a liberation conference are members of the relevant historically oppressed group, be it women or LGBT people, if that conference and the resulting campaign is to have any legitimacy whatsoever.
For instance, black people are uniquely placed to comprehend the importance of black liberation having lived through inevitable oppression on a daily basis and having experienced all the discrimination and marginalisation that is inherent within it. I’m also willing to wager that they are more inclined to demonstrate an inclination for supporting liberation as opposed to mere equality. This is exemplified by the radicalism inherent within the NUS liberation campaigns as opposed to the very moderate main NUS body.
Hence students representing their universities on a national level at a liberation conference can have no mandate to do so if they are not genuinely oppressed as a member of the group which the campaign seeks to liberate. The current system of “self-identification” is not sufficient to ensure this.
In my opinion, the aims of the NUS liberation campaigns would be best served by demanding that delegates must consider themselves to be oppressed as a member of the appropriate group in each instance. But in fairness to the campaigns, there is only so much they can achieve without the co-operation of all students with whichever provisions they put forth.
This means that responsibility ultimately lies with us, the student body, to consider carefully before deciding to nominate ourselves as a delegate whether or not we are best placed to represent a particular oppressed group at a conference.
So if you self-define as mixed-race because your great-grandmother was Chinese, I think you might need to seriously consider just how qualified you are to represent as a delegate at a liberation conference the specific needs of black students who daily face all kinds of racism and discrimination. Similarly, if you are slightly dyslexic but it doesn’t really affect your life, should you realistically be eligible to represent disabled students?
However, the NUS liberation campaign most susceptible to abuse of the self-identity provisions is the LGBT one. For example, if you once kissed a girl and you liked it so don’t quite consider yourself to be straight, despite having heterosexual relationships and living a predominantly heteronormative lifestyle, I think you should think twice about whether you are an appropriate delegate for a LGBT place at a liberation conference. Although I firmly believe that a more open-minded approach to the fluidity of sexuality is an important aspect of LGBT liberation, we all need to consider whether such an individual really faces the day-to-day emotional and societal hardships of genuinely LGBT people and that under the current system, they are perfectly entitled nominate themselves a delegate for the annual NUS LGBT conference. In my opinion, such a person can realistically only be considered an ally of the LGBT movement and should not be eligible to become a delegate.
I understand that the militancy of this argument may render it an unpopular one, but I think we need to consider the bigger picture here. If we are saying that we ought to leave the “self-definition” provision in its current, astoundingly wide form, we risk doing liberation movement, particularly the LGBT movement, a huge, counter-productive injustice. If we consider that places to NUS conferences are fairly limited to usually around four delegates in total, allowing the self-defining non-heterosexual, but in practice completely heteronormative, person described above to contest a conference place against a genuinely oppressed LGBT person is most damaging.
A genuinely oppressed person is precisely the kind of individual who will be afraid to stand in an election should a position be contested – especially if they are LGBT and stand to be outed – yet they will always be the best qualified representative, however experienced or politicised the opponent.
Thus the situation potentially arrived at is one whereby an oppressed individual has quite literally had their voice and their platform stolen by a non-oppressed individual, parodying the real-life oppression all such individuals actually face and making a mockery of all liberation movements.
But current provisions have the potential not only to contradict the vision of liberation, but to completely undermine it. This is why I think we need to reaffirm our commitment to liberation by reforming our eligibility criteria arrangements. We also ought to debate whether or not elections are always the most ideal means of selecting delegates in all situations. Most of all though, to avoid potentially disastrous consequences, individual students need to carefully consider whether they are genuinely oppressed as a person belonging to a group we are seeking to liberate before they nominate themselves as a delegate to a liberation conference.