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We spoke to Manchester Students’ Union on BSL clapping, the Kipling controversy, and fake news

‘People will try to silence you. Don’t let them’

The University of Manchester Students' Union has been in the news a lot recently. From the Kipling controversy in July, to the introduction of BSL clapping at SU Senate Events earlier this September, their policies and activism have been placed at the heart of debates over the so-called "snowflake generation", making them subject to hatred and backlash, but have also inspired disengaged students to stand up and use their voices.

The Manchester Tab spoke with International Officer Riddi Visu and Welfare Officer Deej Malik-Johnson about why their policies have attracted so much attention, and the power of student politics.

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Why do you think your policies have attracted so much media attention?

Deej: "I think at the moment that Students' Unions in general are highly newsworthy at the moment. And I think there is a thing about narratives where there does seem to be a few stock phrases, like "snowflake", the debate around free speech, things like that which grab attention."

Riddi: "I believe more and more young people and students are being more vocal about their opinions when probably a couple of years ago they wouldn’t have stood up.

"Whereas today we have the exposure and the confidence to speak up, and more and more activists around the country are speaking up, and they happen to be young leaders and students in universities".

Deej: "I think we have changing demographics of who comes to university, where there is a lot more international students, a lot more students of ethnic minorities who are on campus. I think where in any society, in any group where you have a demographic shift, there is going to be some tensions about what this means.

"I think by its nature that creates a lot of discussions and a lot of thought about what it means to be a student".

You've had a profound effect on showing people the level of influence students can have. What has this meant for the student movement?

Riddi: "I certainly do believe that students have the power to change the world. I think that activism is the place to get everything started, as much as we've had backlashes over so many policies we've passed and acts we've been involved in, we’ve seen a very positive side to it as well.

"The amount of engagement we've had, as well as the disengagement we've had is because of the news being misinterpreted in many ways. After the Kipling controversy, because that was at the time where students were choosing which university to go to, we had students emailing us personally saying they didn't want to go to a university where they were denied freedom of speech.

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Sara Khan with 'Still I Rise' by Maya Angelou, partially painted over 'If' by Rudyard Kipling

"Once we actually took the time to respond to them explaining why we took this stance, the students were more than convinced. In fact, I got a reply from one of them saying they were now coming to the University of Manchester.

"This is not just a Manchester thing either, I’ve seen people from all over the country sending not just messages of solidarity but even putting those practices in place. For example, I know the BSL clapping has been introduced in the Bedfordshire Diversity Council."

Deej: "The NUS were a large part of the Peoples' Vote March last weekend. For a nation the size of ours, having 700,00 marching and engaged to say we need better consultation on Brexit is very powerful.

"I’m a mature student, so I remember in 2003 when the anti-war demonstrations were going on, I remember the student movement was a huge part of that as well. When we have shameful detention centres going on in the country, the one group that can be relied on to stand up is students. That’s something we need to be really proud of."

Why do you think you received so much backlash, and what advice do you have for student activists receiving the same?

Riddi: "I've never experienced this much hate before. Some of the letters we received could not even be disclosed because they’re so hateful. It was really daunting, and it still is.

"If you notice the difference in the backlash we got as women of colour and a man, it's not just speaking to me about gender inequality. It raises the question: are you being targeted for the opinion you have or are you being targeted for being of a certain identity?

"But what I'd like to highlight is how supportive my team has been. You have to know you’re making short term sacrifices to make a long term impact in the student movement and student life. The NUS just released a guide on how to respond to negative press."

Deej: "I think it was very interesting that during the Kipling controversy, I was just as involved as anyone else. While other members of the team were being told they should no longer be allowed in the country, they should no longer be living, they were going to be assaulted, the worst that I got as a man of a certain size was the question "are you sure you should be doing that?".

"Something I would say to activists, especially activists of colour, especially female activists of colour is that people will try to silence you. Don’t let them. Your voice is needed as anybody else's in society. Your power is vital. There is this resistance towards you because you are important. And if what you were saying was unimportant, people wouldn't respond.

"Let's have debates, let's have discussions, but remember that we’re humans. Remember that we have a responsibility to live in this world after the debate has finished."