Educate, don’t legislate

Jack Hobohm discusses the lessons to be learnt from The Sun boycott


The Union Council this month has encouraged more online debate than most, partly due to the motion to boycott the Sun newspaper, and partly for the call to ban the Robin Thicke song “Blurred Lines” from being played in Union premises.  Both of these motions were raised by Rachel Knott, the Women’s Officer of the Union of UEA Students, with the Sun motion passed by Council, and the Blurred Lines motion deferred until the next meeting.

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Whatever your views on these particular motions, every time there is a Union call to ban something, it starts me thinking.  The Union has a purpose, stated on its website: “To enrich the life of every UEA student”, and a set of values listed as “Collectivism, Diversity, Equality, Fun, Empowerment, Sustainability and Democracy”.  That’s fine, I don’t have a problem with any of that – all great aspirations for a Students’ Union to have.  What I’m not so clear on is this: do we, as UUEAS members, have the right to have different values to those of the Union?  What if, for whatever reason, someone places much more value on ‘hard work’ than ‘fun’?  Would they be allowed to have values that seem to contradict those of the Union?

Of course, this is a fairly trivial example, but the same principle holds true for the other values.  What if someone, for religious reasons for example, doesn’t define or value ‘equality’ in the same way as the Union?  Would they have to opt out of the Union for not sharing the same values?  It would seem that as “Diversity” is one of the Union’s values, then differences of opinion would be embraced and encouraged – but does this include differences of opinion on those values themselves?

If diversity is encouraged, and this includes the right to have different values to those prescribed by the Union, it prompts the question: does the Union have the right to enforce its values on all its members, by selectively boycotting things that don’t subscribe to those pre-defined values, regardless of the individual members’ beliefs?

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I absolutely believe in the right for all students to be able to go through their University life without being discriminated against, and without being subjected to harassment of any kind, and I understand where the motions passed to Council this month were coming from.  Not wishing to trivialise any of the issues faced by women, I do question whether a boycott is the best way to highlight or tackle the problem.  For me, I have much bigger problems with the Sun than the fact that there’s a picture of a semi-clad woman on one of the pages, but I also have similar problems with the Mail or the Express. I agree totally with Rachel’s argument that images of semi-clad women are inappropriate, and that’s why I choose not to buy the Sun.  But I choose not to buy it.  I don’t need the Union telling me what I can and can’t buy, to uphold values that I may or may not subscribe to.

Personally, I’d much rather start to tackle the issues raised by these motions by holding proper debates, where people are allowed to explain their opinions and values so that others who don’t understand the reasoning can hear.  Then maybe the Union could start a ‘don’t buy the Sun’ campaign, backed up with literature that actually explains the reason for the campaign to the uneducated.

Unfortunately, the take-home message of boycotting the Sun seems to be “the Sun is banned on campus” or “the dictatorship union have stopped us buying the Sun”.  The real message doesn’t get through, and what you’re left with is a growing number of students who become disengaged with the Union.  They feel that they can make their own decisions as to which newspaper to buy, and quite rightly – because as educated individuals, they can. It is also important to consider that this decision was made by 57% of the less-than-100 councillors which turned up and a request to put it to a referendum involving the entire student body was rejected by a very close margin. Surely for such a controversial issue a referendum would be common sense?

What the Union Council motion to boycott the Sun fails spectacularly to do is educate people about the arguments against buying it, and appears to the masses to just take a heavy handed approach by boycotting it, alienating exactly those people it should be educating.  I fear that in winning this battle, the war against sexism and misogyny has taken an unfortunate step back.  There is no way to measure the success of a boycott, so there is no way of knowing if people are responding to the issues that surround it.  If it were a campaign, success can be measured and the campaign can be targeted, and people will be educated on the issues.

The Union is a powerful tool, but must be used wisely and in the interests of the body it pertains to represent.  Educate, don’t legislate.