Have the student left become more unsettling than the right?
Despite the prevalence of student activism lately, most students are still disengaged
As most students are not involved in student politics and the right is increasingly cautious and quiet, what remains is the activist left, armed with righteous fury, who are outspoken. But we should be careful that those who speak the loudest do not speak for us all.
I will confess right now that I have never been with involved student politics, in fact the closest I’ve probably come to involvement is having lived next door to a former CULC co-chair and our current JCR President. However, my role in student journalism has meant that I can’t remain ignorant of what goes on within the student political sphere altogether, so I’m writing this as an outside observer.
It would be an understatement to say things have gotten quite political lately, with strikes and picket lines, the CUSU elections and the occupation of the Old Schools. In all of this, what strikes me most is the lack of diversity in the main narrative of events. Is it that most students genuinely do not care, or are people holding back on their opinions because they don’t seem to fit the outspoken view?
Let’s start with the strikes and picket lines. Much has already been said, so I’ll try not to bore you. As university staff went on strike and formed picket lines on various sites, students were quick to come out in support, with pictures of themselves on Facebook standing in picket lines or protests outside Senate House. I’ve yet to see a picture of students deciding to cross the picket lines though, and support lecturers who did decide to continue teaching.
Instead, students who wanted to attend ongoing lectures were taken aback by the confrontation at picket lines, being yelled at, called ‘scabs’, simply for wanting to continue their education. Most students did sympathise with the strikes and understood why staff would choose to do so, but were frustrated that their education was used as a bargaining chip. Those who wanted to continue learning as much as they could, were somehow treated as traitors to the cause. It was not helped that CUSU toed the UCU line and did not offer much to help students understand their rights.
Of course there were people who took a different stance than the activist left about both the strikes and the Old Schools occupation. Unsurprisingly, the article about why someone would choose to cross a picket line, and even more so the one criticising the occupation as self-indulgent, came under fire. It seems for every differing view given, more is said in retaliation, reinforcing the activist left view.
In spite of all this, students are not getting more involved in politics; the recent CUSU elections was telling in how only 20% of students actually voted, so seemingly the majority of students do not see CUSU as having any relevance to their lives at all. Equally telling is that given the opportunity to choose the further left candidate, those who actually voted declined to do so.
The candidate with the conservative background was keen to underplay it, despite having being President of CUCA, and to stress that his policies were not entirely right leaning. It seems at the moment, it is not very fashionable to be a conservative, though there are of course many students in Cambridge who have more right-wing views. CUCA’s reputation has fared badly after the note-burning incident where it was widely publicised that the student in white tie was coming from a CUCA dinner, even though it has been ascertained now, that he was in fact not.
Many students in Cambridge do not have fixed political views but are wavering, unsure or change their mind. This is perfectly fine, but what would be more encouraging for students to engage in student politics would be an appreciation of a variety of opinions, in which the predominant one is more challenged than it is now.
Not all students in Cambridge are going to want to be involved in politics, and that's fair enough as there are plenty of other things going on in our university. Yet when the activist left students take a morally righteous tone and because they dare to be outspoken seem to establish a consensus, this can deter those who want to offer a different opinion.
A situation where students hold back from engaging because they don't want to face backlash from a vocal group for their contrary views is not conducive to promoting open debate in the university. It does little to engage those who currently see student politics as irrelevant to their lives as they think won't think their opinion will be heard anyway.
The voice that speaks the loudest does not mean it is right – and in the most cases there is no right opinion. We cannot stop others from asserting their views, instead we should not be afraid of making our own voices heard. Discord and diversity of opinion should be something encouraged and celebrated.