A Burning Issue

I want to say here and now that I have absolutely no problem with the Conservative and Unionist Association burning a black guy in effigy last week. I don’t think […]

I want to say here and now that I have absolutely no problem with the Conservative and Unionist Association burning a black guy in effigy last week. I don’t think it was racist and I don’t think the fact that the effigy was black is in any way (as many have claimed) a “disgrace” to the University.


I have a problem with burning ANYONE in effigy. I was equally incensed on discovering that a left wing society had burned Margaret Thatcher in effigy as well. I have absolutely no doubt that, in these actions, both groups are a disgrace to the University, the Union and their fellow students.


I also couldn’t care less that they haven’t broken any law or rule of the Union. Nor is it justified by protestations that it’s a “tradition” – if anything, that makes it worse. I believe that if we, as students at an institution that claims to be one of the finest in the world, hold ourselves to such low standards that simply getting through the day without violating the law of the land is a satisfactory outcome then we should take a serious look at ourselves.


Burning our political opponents in effigy is a manifestation of one of the deepest failings of modern public debate. It says that we’re more interested in hating the individual rather than disputing their ideas. It is the same mentality that means we lap up snide media comments about a female politician’s appearance rather than listening to what she has to say. It is the same mentality that meant whether or not Gordon Brown smiled or not received more attention than what he actually said. And it is the same mentality that means criticism of Barack Obama is so often (unfairly) characterised as racist. We’re more interested in the person (he’s black, he’s gay, she’s divorced – does it matter?) than what he has to say. Burning in effigy demonises and dehumanises those who disagree with us, it says we don’t want to engage, compromise or understand – just hate. And, if social interaction is part of the essence of our humanity, it dehumanises those who do the burning as well.


In addition, whether it was intended or not, burning is a deeply symbolic act. Throughout Western history we have burned that which we not only despise, but truly fear. The Conservative Association nominates a “heretic” to burn every year. I wonder whether they have ever considered just how many “heretics” have been burned in St Andrews? Traditionally undergraduates avoid standing on the initials of Patrick Hamilton – a “heretic” who was put to death in the most horrific way because he would not recant his beliefs. Those called heretics were most often heroes and certainly those to whom we should show a little respect.


One of my personal heroes is John Adams, the second President of the United States. The popular story is that he died with the words “Jefferson survives”. This has been interpreted different ways but I choose to believe that Adams was expressing relief that the man, who was his greatest political rival but also a lifelong friend, would live on. The tragedy, of course, is that Jefferson had died hours earlier. The point though, is that Adams respected Jefferson as a person, despite fundamentally disagreeing with him on political issues. He was comforted in death by his belief that Jefferson lived on because he believed him to be a good man. It’s worth noting that these men went down as the founding fathers of the United States of America – certainly one of the most fundamental achievements in history.


Of course it’s easy to make these points in abstract terms with reference to long dead heroes. But the same thing applies in St Andrews today. In our letter to The Saint, published this week, Patrick and I defend the value of student democracy. This will only work if it exists in a spirit of mutual respect, even if that respect encompasses disagreements. The Principal has affirmed time and time again that St Andrews should be a place of debate. But we can’t debate if we demonise the other side. Refusing to meet or engage with opponents only leads to a descending spiral of tit-for-tat bickering. I believe St Andrews students are some of the best in the world and I believe we should hold ourselves to that standard. Everyone at this university has the potential to achieve great things but we will not do that by engaging in infantile personal demonization such as burning in effigy. We have a responsibility to demonstrate with our conduct that we want to engage and debate. Both the student left and the student right have valuable contributions to make. But they will not do so if they cannot engage with those who disagree with them. Burning in effigy shows you don’t want to engage (and why would anyone want to engage with you if that’s the way you behave?). It delegitimises your own ideas – and that may be the greatest tragedy.




Written by, Sam Fowles, Director of Representation at the Students Association and standpoint writer