Sunday, December 06, 2015

All Those Bloody Campus Radicals

Nick Barlow is absolutely right about the relative importance of student politics here.  The short version - student politics rarely even seem relevant to students, let alone to wider society.

I'd add a bit of context by noting that outbursts of political silliness in academia in the USA have been exploited to build attacks on the Democratic Party since the late sixties at least*.  For decades, hackish Republicans who have struggled to lay a glove on their opponents have successfully mined the campus for useful outrage.

Why would they do such a thing?  Well, mainly because it's very difficult to imagine e.g. Jimmy Carter demanding that people sign pre-shag consent contracts, or to envision Bill Clinton denouncing a Japanese-themed club night for cultural appropriation**.  Barack Obama probably doesn't much care whether arsey comments are "micro-aggressions" or not.

On the other hand, it's very, very easy to pick up any particular piece of well-intentioned PC knuckle-fuckery by a small gaggle of earnest twenty-year-olds at Berkely, and to then use it as an excuse to wail and scream about how this is incredibly revealing about The Totalitarian Mindset Of The Left, or whatever.  Watch in awe, as we defend you from the threat of these pointy-headed traitors!   

All of this is about keeping your own constituency riled up and furious - vote for our very sensible, level-headed candidates, or These People will get in, with their dictatorial culturally-appropriate speech-codes and what-have-you.  It usually has very little to do with the actual topic under discussion.

And yet, for all these wails and screams, the world has continued to turn almost entirely unaffected.  This is because student politics just aren't very important, and most of the people involved will sooner or later grow out of whatever faddish nonsense they were peddling when they were twenty.

If this wasn't the case - if student politics really does wield a major influence over society - then capitalism and war have done remarkably well to have survived this fifty-year academic onslaught unscathed. 

You can see this playing out in America right now, where every cough and fart on campus is pounced upon as evidence of... whatever.  And yet, while students may be a bunch of censorious privilege-checkers, a presidential candidate can still call the Mexicans rape-happy savages and be rewarded for it with rocketing poll numbers.

The same applies here, where student foolishness is frequently the subject of major social media outrage.  I don't doubt that there are people who are genuinely concerned when some student union somewhere disinvites a perfectly reasonable speaker for Thought-Crime.  I'm also sure that the various outbreaks of ideological mania can be very distressing for people caught up in them.

Nonetheless, I think the never-ending fury at the students from people who are usually decades older than them springs from the idea that, because a particular topic under discussion is very important, any statements about it from fourteen kids at the University of Barking-Twatbridge must be very important also.

Well, it usually isn't.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

And, as in America, there are quite a lot of people in the UK currently using student politics as a useful stick with which to beat their actual political foes.  Look, they say, isn't this campus nonsense incredibly revealing about The Totalitarian Mindset of the Left?  Why, speaking as a sensible, level-headed person, watch as I strike a mighty blow for intellectual freedom etc. and so on.

It's just as much about keeping your constituency riled up and furious, as it is when the worst Republican hacks do it.  Ultimately, the endless rounds of hysteria about campus shenanigans are best understood not as any kind of struggle for free enquiry, but as a sales pitch for a particularly belligerent form of politics.

Anyway.  As I usually say when student controversies come up, it's always worth remembering that people who are old enough to know better, but still spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about student politics, are usually telling you far more about themselves than they are about student politics.

And yes, this almost certainly applies to me, as well. 

*Rick Perlstein's recent work on Nixon and Reagan, particularly useful here for noting how for much of the decade, the main problem with the Vietnam War was not all the needlessly dead people, but the unpatriotic behaviour of all those bloody campus radicals.

**It's probably less difficult to imagine those events happening if the roles were reversed, mind.


organic cheeseboard said...

I feel quite sorry for almost all the student societies at the centre of these witch-hunts (with a possible exception for the societies who invite people who spread hatred). These societies aren't full-time jobs; students probably spend about an hour a week on the admin for them, at most, and the socities are typically full of cliques who hate each other. As such when a hardline clique demands that speakers be disinvited, then yer average student is likely to either be convinced by them - I can remember many instances as a student of being won over by disingenuous bullshit that SOUNDED GOOD to my PC-wannabe ears - or alternatively to just go along with the request because it's not worth the hassle or the further aggro from other cliques. That's not to say any of the decisions they make are right or not, not that they don't sometimes send odd signals, but students have busy lives - they're not professional event organisers.

Also looking closer at some of the supposedly shocking cases always ends up with a muddy picture of what people actually want from student unions, and about where the priorities of those getting so supposedly upset lie. E.G. in Decent logic, it's fine for David Toube to gatecrash events and 'disrupt' them because he's decided for himself that the speakers have intolerable views, and it's also fine when that Syrian organisation intentionally does to Stop the War meetings to disrupt them (and in fact attempts to stop the disruption are reported as 'STW won't listen to Syrians' when in fact it's 'STW don't appreciate their meetings being intentionally disrupted by Syrians who want to, er, start the war and who don't represent all Syrians by any means'), but when others do it, it's somehow a threat to freedom of speech.

The latest thing - about Maryam Namazie at Goldsmiths - also looks a bit iffy to me, which is not to excuse any student intimidation or bad behaviour, but to point out that this stuff is rarely reported impartially - a 'lecturer' quoted by Securalism's report, who saw the 'death threats' from Muslim men at the event, Reza Moradi, is someone who has a history of, er, disrupting events at universities, and is also seemingly not a lecturer at all, but is in fact a committee member of Maryam Namazie's organisations - not only the Ex-Muslims organisation, but also an Iranian Communist party. Again, all good, but e.g. Nick Cohen this very weekend is berating Brecht in print for, er, his being a Communist.

That event also kicks off, in part, because the organiser tells people who are talking to 'shut the fuck up' while Namazie is still talking, as opposed to e.g. stopping the speaker and asking everyone to be quiet - again demonstrating that this stuff is run by amateurs who aren't really experienced at what they're doing. Again, that's not to say that some of the students didn't behave very badly at that event - they obviously did - but that reports of silly goings-on at events run by amateurs are rarely impartial, and that disruption is ok when some people do it, but not others, largely because of their political views.

Igor Belanov said...

The irony is that many of the 'moderate' Labour politicians beloved by the milieu who obsess about these things were extremely at home amongst this type of student politics and, indeed, often made their names mastering it.

Anonymous said...

"Nick Cohen this very weekend is berating Brecht in print for, er, his being a Communist"

And the International Brigades were mainly CP members with guns and a bit of military training. So one day they can be symbols of internationalism defending the beleaguered elected government of the Spanish Republic, and the next day they can be dangerous tools of Stalinism. A speech denouncing evil, with a name-check for the International Brigades, can go down well in the House of Commons but doesn't begin to tackle the complexity of the competing factions in the Middle East (or the complexity of late 1930s Britain).

Igor has a point. It's moderate politicians who have come out student union politics. This is part of the reason for taking offence at just about anything that StWC says or does. It's just second nature, and the conflict in the wider Middle East doesn't fit into their good versus evil world outlook.


flyingrodent said...

I know it infuriates commenters when I take this tack, especially when they've gone to a lot of trouble to analyse some of the sillier claims being made, but still:

Let's imagine that almost all of these huge, outrageous campus scandals are exactly as they're depicted by the most enthusiastic denouncers. The students are relativist, blinded-by-political-correctness, censorious, intolerant dafties.

Well, you know, so what? I'd be surprised if we're talking about a few hundred people here nationwide in private members' clubs.

What are we to deduce from this? Are - say - four hundred dafties in a country with a population pushing sixty five million a matter of pressing national concern?

Well, no, not even slightly. I am being invited to give a shit about this, but I find that I cannot, no matter how ripe the alleged relativism.

And I mean, this is the situation if we're assuming that their critics aren't just going nuts for no reason, or for bad reasons. If we factor the fact that most of these controversies are reported by the likes of Nick or Brendan O'Neill, it becomes ludicrous, actual bathos.

Oh no, the Rad-Fem Soc at Paisley Uni want to ban sombreros! Whatever does this tell us about modern society?

Well, it tells me that people who are basically arseholes can get paid quite well to trash nameless students in right-wing magazines. That's about it, though.

organic cheeseboard said...

Ah yeah, I mean, I work at a University and it's definitely the case at ours that probably 80% of the student body are completely uninterested in their union aside from its cheap food and booze. They might be in societies, but they're probably not active in them unless they play sports - and even if they are, most societies will struggle to have more than fortnightly meetings, with a couple of big events a term, and there are only typically 24 weeks in the University year; most of the time these societies do absolutely nothing.

Also might be worth mentioning here that student politics is a far bigger deal in two universities than it is everywhere else and you can probably guess which two universities those are - the college systems they operate with mean that it's much harder to avoid. And no prizes for guessing where a shitload of the journos fixating on this stuff went to uni.

Like the anonymous, and noisy, but definitely not all that numerous and certainly not very powerful Twitter-abusers, this kind of thing gives people cover for mouthing off about the 'unseriousness' of vast swathes of people who they'd otherwise have to actually think seriously about. But that'd involve actually challenging themselves to think about things that might change their minds, and that'd be just too much to bear...

ejh said...

Also might be worth mentioning here that student politics is a far bigger deal in two universities than it is everywhere else and you can probably guess which two universities those are - the college systems they operate with mean that it's much harder to avoid.

I wouldn't be overconfident of that thesis, since they also have central student unions which is where the "real" politics (and hackery, and the student welfare work) goes on. Yeah there's student meetings in the colleges, but I'd want convincing that the effect of the collegiate system was more to bring the student politics closer to the student body than to put distance between the two.

organic cheeseboard said...

Not that I have any proof (god forbid!) but what I meant there was that at Oxbridge it's very hard to ignore politics on a college level, no matter how petty and ultimately inconsequential. That means, I think, that journos educated in that system will think that student politics is an everyday part of student life everywhere, when it really isn't.

Anonymous said...

But if you think of Paris in 1968 or Beijing in 1989 - when students almost brought down the system - isn't the conservatism (censorship, prudery, pettiness) at UK universities just really depressing?

It also seems to reflect the failures of our own democracy in microcosm. ie 10 people sitting about debating what to ban next, against a background of mass indifference. For me, the tuned-out students are even more frightening than the minority who have managed to wriggle into power, if they are a preview of future attitudes to unions, democracy, freedom of speech.

Anonymous said...

at Oxbridge it's very hard to ignore politics on a college level

No it isn't. At least, I and my friends managed to do it without very much effort.