By: Drew MacEachern
I have been with the Cadre for the past three years, and over that time I have been able to see the workings of several different Student Union Councils and Executives. I have said before, and will say again, that this specific one is the best I’ve seen in years. However, that does not mean I do not have issues with certain trends in the Student Union, that are increasingly common throughout administrations. The most glaring one is what I would call the increasing fear of controversy; a tendency to shy away from anything that could cause discomfort or judgement. There has been a tendency to avoid doing or talking about certain topics or issues solely because of the optics around the issue.
Now I should clarify this statement, because this is not a black and white issue. This move has both been part of a general trend towards image-focused professionalization across the globe and a conscious decision on the part of the various SU executives of years past to avoid the activist-style protests of some student groups in the past. I firmly agree with them on this. Student politics has too often been the realm of self-serving, self-styled ‘activists’ who ignore legitimate student issues of debt and tuition in favour of boosting their public profile and careers by responding to important, but directly irrelevant issues. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an important issue, but an issue best left to other kinds of student groups.
This can be a problem even when the issues are student-related. I remember the protests in Quebec over tuition hikes. What I also remember is that that kind of activism did little for students, but did launch several political careers. I would argue that the Student Union is right to be avoiding this kind of student activism and lobbying. However, just because they are avoiding one issue, does not prevent them from backing into another one. It seems that this concern over ‘professionalism’ is starting to morph into a tendency to purposefully avoid any meaningfully controversial discussions or stances.
There are two specific examples this year that seem to clarify exactly what I mean by this. The first came with the ratification, or lack-there-of, of the RSM, or Revolutionary Student Movement, UPEI’s local Marxist-Leninist-Maoist student group. Now, I am the first to admit that I am not a proponent of this ideology, and it was the Cadre who first questioned the connections between the RSM and the RCP that some councilors took issue with. However, I was still a little disappointed in that decision. The stated reasons the SU had for not ratifying was that the stated revolutionary aims of the organization were opposed to the principles of the SU, and that their submitted material left out some. These are understandable reasons.
However, I still would have supported ratification. I’m still not sure why a self-proclaimed revolutionary organization, independent from the bourgeois state, would want to be publicly accepted by such a bourgeois institution, but there was no harm in doing so. Ratification does not mean support; the SU has ratified both pro-life and pro-choice organizations at the same time. I doubt they would have taken any truly troublesome actions, and if they did, then they could have been disciplined and de-ratified. Besides, if they were ratified, the SU could have denied any funding requests the group put forward if they were to be used for legally-questionable activities.
By opting for marginalization instead of some form of institutional engagement, the SU played into the narrative of suppression, and gained the group a certain amount of legitimacy. The university exists as a place where such activities and debate can take place outside the limitations of mainstream life. However, we are beginning to lose this deeply important function over concerns of marketability and non-offensive accessibility. There is an increasing impetus to drive points of view that exist outside the mainstream of public discourse underground. This does not grow us intellectually, and certainly does not help to tame the real feelings of disenfranchisement of which these movements are symptomatic.
The second is with the recent debate surrounding the divestment petition. I was reporting when the matter was discussed in council, and I must say I was severely disappointed in the nature of the debate on the issue. Council only spent about 10 minutes discussing the issue. During this time, people talked in circles, people questioned why they were debating the question in the first place, and a vote was called on the motion before an Executive member was finished asking actually relevant questions.
One councilor specifically questioned whether it was the place of the Student Union to confront the University’s administration about its policies and tell them how to do things! Excuse me, but that is exactly your job as a student councilor. Whether it works, and how you present yourself, are different questions. I should remind everyone, this discussion was not over adopting divestment as SU policy, but rather over whether it should be debated and researched by the SU at all!
I know some councilors feel that the issue is not the best use of the SU’s time. That like the Israeli-Palestinian example given above, it is not an explicitly student need. That is a perfectly acceptable and debatable answer. It is also a debate that we, as students, really should be having. Instead, some councilors, overly concerned with maintaining the appearance of a ‘professional’ organization, are afraid to step on the toes of university administrators, would prevent us from even discussing this.
Why does this matter? We are increasingly living in a world where optics are everything. People judge and are judged on the appearance of things. Real substantive discussions, which can upset the status quo, are increasingly avoided. When this happens, we lose the ability to question why we do things, therefore becoming trapped in a positive feedback loop of self-commodification. It also promotes the mentality that we have seen among some members of council; that it is better not to press issues, for fear of how you will come off. Of course, I myself have not always done this in my life. It is also unfair to entirely blame the Student Union, when I’ve already identified that this is part of a long-term trend. This is part of the reason for writing this editorial. The first thing to do is fix yourself and then be a diving board for some positive change. Hopefully, this can be a starting place for some discussion over these and other issues, even if its just to tell me I’m wrong. Only by doing this can actually try to fight back against the trends in public discourse discussed here.