How Did Student Politics Become So Boring?

There’s an old joke, that’s been floating around for years now, that goes something like this “How many (Glasgow Uni) students does it take to change a light bulb? 76; one to change the bulb, fifty to protest the bulb’s right not to be forced to change, and twenty five to organise a counter-protest.” There is, in fact, one of these for just about every university in the country. However, the joke regarding Glasgow raises a very interesting issue; you see, ten or twenty years ago, perhaps even less than that, this joke would have rung very true indeed, however, at present it appears that it’s getting further and further from the truth. To put it simply: students don’t seem to care any more.

Now, that might seem like a rather harsh statement, but it does appear to have some substance behind it if we begin to look at some of the numbers. Let’s firstly jump into the most basic bit of student politics, i.e., the Students’ Representative Council elections. Every year, the Glasgow University student body elects members to the SRC: the SRC deals with everything from individual school representation, to various equality positions, to clubs and societies, etc. To put it simply, for the vast majority of things that affect the students on a day to day basis, the SRC runs the show. It therefore seems reasonable that such an election should garner a lot of attention from the students and that turnout should be quite high. Unfortunately this was not the case.

Excluding the individual school representatives and college conveners and the president, the average number of votes cast for the Welfare and Equal Opportunities positions sat at around 1600, with three of the positions (Gender Equality Officer, Race Equality Officer and Environment Officer) being uncontested. The sabbatical positions (VP Education, VP Student Activities and VP Student Support) averaged about 1800 votes cast for each position. The position of SRC President, the highest student position in the university, had only 2935 votes cast. It should be noted that Glasgow University has a student body of roughly 25’000 students, all of whom are eligible to vote in these elections. Hardly a resounding turnout.

Why not cast our minds back to the Glasgow University Independence Referendum which took place in February last year. It gained a huge amount of media attention, being hailed as the first real test of the straight yes/no question “should Scotland be an independent country?”. However, on campus, it received very little real attention with near enough no campaigning actually going on about the university. Once again a student population of roughly 25’000 were called to the polls to debate what is, arguably, the most important question of our generation’s lives. The turnout was a measly 2281 votes cast, less than 10% turnout.

And if my point still needs proving, have a look at the recent election for University Rector, the highest elected position in the entire university. The rector is responsible for liaising with the student body and listening to their comments and concerns in order to voice them in sessions of the University Court (the administrative body of the university) which he is also responsible for chairing. It’s a pretty big role and it attracts a lot of attention, this time even from the students. Come election day, though, the turnout sat at 6’560 ballots submitted, a turnout of roughly a quarter of those eligible to vote.

So why is this? Our election turnout is horrifically poor (this isn’t even counting the two unions’ elections or the GUSA elections), the political societies’ attendances are tiny, the sheer lack of politics of any kind on campus is, frankly, quite upsetting. Political stalls, when they do sprout up, are simply walked by with no conversation struck up at all, political campaigners stand very lonely outside the unions as people try desperately to avoid them. Even simple political discussion is nowhere to be heard: start talking politics over lunch in the QM and you’ll quickly be told by others to stop talking because “oh, it only ever causes arguments.” “Save that stuff for the silly societies.” Those societies which are, due to such attitudes, now almost impossible to find, now have such low attendance that discussions just have no atmosphere either.

And of course those discussions are meant to cause arguments, because arguments make us think; they make us defend our points of view, they force us to listen to the pros of the other side, the force us to make decisions and actually get stuff done! The idea that you shouldn’t talk politics and avoid arguing, whilst all nice and cuddly-cosy warm, is, in the long run, going to get us nowhere, it’s going to cause people to simply stop thinking and stop caring.

Now the reason I’ve centred this around a university (apart from the fact that I’m a student at that university) is that universities are places to think; they are places where we expect the next generation of our best and brightest, our scientists, doctors, teachers, philosophers and leaders to come from. But how can a university bring such people into society if, during their years there, students are being conditioned not to partake in politics, not to think, not to debate and not to speak out on the issues important to them? Very simply, it can’t. The result of the decline in student politics will result in a decline in the number of educated people taking an active interest and role in politics, it will result in a decline in the number of people willing to speak out on radical issues, it will result in a very small number of people going into politics with a very inoffensive middle ground view. It will, in short, result in a society that drives to middle of the road to sit there in neutral.

There are likely to be a large number of reasons for all of this; the increase in political apathy an general over the last decade or so, the increasingly international population of students who don’t see politics over here (even in their university) as any of their concern, etc. But if one thing does remain certain, it’s that we need to increase political interest in our universities once more, because if we don’t we may quickly find ourselves sliding down a very slippery slope to complete political apathy – the point at which democracy fails. I don’t think any of us want to see that too soon.


Freedom of Speech = Freedom to Offend?

Hello, hello, hello. Last night I had the rather unique experience of seeing Jimmy Carr perform his new show live at the Dunfermline Alhambra Theatre. As usual, he was absolutely hilarious and the seeing him live made the whole experience so much more entertaining, my face was literally numb from having laughed so hard by the end of the night. However, as hilarious as he was, and indeed usually is, his humour is certainly not entirely for the faint of heart or easily offended. He did in fact make quite a point about the issue of telling offensive jokes, however being Jimmy Carr, he couldn’t keep it on a serious note for too long. But the whole thing got me thinking once more about how we perceive freedom of speech and whether freedom to offend is inherently a part of that or not. If you haven’t yet seen his new show, I apologise, there may be spoilers, but I will try to keep them to a minimum.

Jimmy Carr, around the “tax evasion” incident. Image Credit – Mirror, from Getty Images

It is indeed an age old question that has gone hand in hand with the question of the right to free speech; Do we have a right to offend others? Well, the simple fact is that if we truly advocate freedom of speech, then yes we should, after all, telling people that they can’t say something – regardless of its offensiveness or lack thereof – is censorship of speech. On the other hand, there are those who would say that we should not be allowed to offend other people and that in the interests of being kind and, god help us, “politically correct”, we must be prepared to face restrictions on our freedom of speech.

It is generally argued that the reason we should be willing to forgo full freedom of speech because we are too civilised to allow for people to go about offending others, and that in order to keep everyone happy we must censor ourselves in various respects. However, the idea that we need some group of people at the “top” to tell us how we may speak and what we may and may not say is simply a show that we are not civilised enough, in their eyes at least, to use simple common sense and have the freedom to say what we want. In fact, if if we are to be as civilised as these people at the top would claim, it would be precisely that which means we can say what we like, with common sense as our guidelines.

Still, there are always likely to be people to whom common sense does not come naturally, who will take things too far and offend everyone. Then there is also the matter of the touchy lot who are either looking for attention, wanting a fight or too damned dense to take a fucking joke. So where then do we rest with them? Do people have a right to be “offended”; and by that I do not mean that people should have not the right to take offence to a remark, but as to whether or not they should have the right to “be offended” – shouting at and abusing the other person and informing them that they have no right to say what they just said and should they deign to say it again things of an unpleasant nature may occur.

Now you see, I can find some sense in the idea that there are some ideas people don’t want being floated about by certain people. For example, the banning of certain groups with “extreme” views from expressing those views. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m never too happy to see neo-Nazi groups parading through the streets, waving their slogans of ignorant, ill-thought-through hate, but regardless of how we feel about them, they are legitimate political views, and to censor them would make us no better than what they are. I am a firm believer in the idea that if an idea is profoundly wrong and stupid, that society will reject it. Whilst there tend to be a fair number of nutters around, take the EDL and SDL as examples, the majority of society knows that they are crazy, and will eventually whittle away at them and the idea will die out. We don’t need governments to tell us that these things shouldn’t be said. Society is generally quite good at working these things out.

Secondly there is the matter of people who get offended on behalf of others, which Mr. Carr highlighted quite well in his show. As most people who are in a university will know, there are many crazy societies – may favourites in Glasgow being the Marxists (in fact all the left societies in Glasgow are a touch mental) and the Feminist Society. Now before we go any further, this is not to say that I don’t agree with some of the things these groups stand for, but the groups themselves can become a touch crazy from time to time. One thing that a number of them have in common is this self-righteous sense that they have a duty to be offended on behalf of everyone and anyone. A little pointer, you fucking don’t.

It really annoys me that white, middle class, reasonably privileged students can sit about claiming that I must retract statements as they are offensive to Gay Black Jewish Chinese Whales living in Russia or some shit like that. Because the simple fact is, you have no idea what you are talking about, and as a matter of fact are probably offending those you seek to be defending by deciding you can speak for them regardless of how far removed your two respective demographics are. I have found this out for myself first hand too; I was down in England, chatting with a number of English people, you tend to find them in England, and one of them made a joke about me being Scottish, doing the accent and everything, as you do. A rather self-righteous lady then stepped in, informing the people I was with that such jokes were offensive, then having the audacity to point out to me, as a Scot and the butt of the joke, that I should be offended by this. It was quite a belittling experience, to have someone I don’t know and who has no idea what I think telling me that I ought to be offended, as if she, and Englishwoman herself, knew better than I.

But I really have to say, what annoys me so much more, is when something intended as a joke, attracts the attention of the self appointed thought police. When people are not only getting offended on behalf of a demographic they are in no way tied to, over something intended as a joke to which the teller attached no real intent of harm. The good thing is that these people are quite small in number, at least here in Scotland where we are able to have a laugh at our own expense – a fact that Jimmy Carr took immediate advantage of, and very well at that. At the end of his gig, he asked if there was anyone in the audience who was genuinely unoffended by his material, and the response was quite a fair majority of people not offended. Most people know how to take a joke. The only problem is that the people who can’t tend to find themselves in charge. To those people I say pull the stick out your arse and lighten the fuck up.

As usual, please feel free to comment, keep the debate going, etc. If you haven’t seen Jimmy Carr’s new show, it’s called “Gagging Order” and he’s touring now and I would recommend it to anyone, especially the lot needing to lighten up. Thanks for reading.

So What’s the Catch?

So, as I said in my last post, I thought I should mow our lawn this afternoon, just so that it isn’t too jungle-esque for when we get back from our two weeks on holiday. Well, I finished my lunch and began unwinding the extension cord and got the mower and strimmer out of the shed and got ready to tackle the back garden. However, before I actually got around to starting, my Dad looked at me, and asked if I was really mowing the lawn, effectively asking ‘what’s the catch?’ There wasn’t any, I just thought that it was a nice enough day, and frankly, it did need done before we went away.

But this got me thinking, does there have to be a catch? Does there always have to be some kind of reciprocation or remuneration in circumstances like these? It seems that people are much to reluctant in taking something for nothing when offered it, and I can sort of see their point when you hear about scams and cowboy builders who will literally leave you up shit creek without a paddle. Hell, even I feel that way sometimes, I can’t stand people buying things for me or doing things for me, I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like charity when it is directed at me.

Image Credit; Daniel Wood, Pick the Brain

However, most people aren’t the cowboys or scamsters, out to do you out of your hard earned cash, most people offering things just enjoy the thought of helping others. Society, however doesn’t like that, it can’t grasp the idea of someone doing something for nothing; we can be offered something, even something small, completely free with no strings attached, and we will still feel mistrusting of it, and the people offering it for that matter.

I have another example of this, that I experienced first hand and on a huge scale during my first full-time job. I won’t lie, I won’t cover it with any pretense, I was a cold-caller, doing door-to-door marketing. But before you being hunting me down to throw your over used door bells at me, here me out. I was basically tasked with signing people up to have their lofts and cavity walls insulated, completely free of charge. Now this does sound too good to be true, insulation to replace your current stuff, that would keep the house warm in winter, lower fuel bills and increase the value of your house? And that was free?

Well, yes, there was a government scheme being run at the time, independent of the current ‘Green Deal’ I should add, that entitled every home in the country to be insulated up to the new EU standards. Now surely if it was a government scheme, people would be lining up to have their homes done? Yes, they probably would have and our job would have been so much simpler. However, the current UK government doesn’t have the best record on honesty, further to that, they really didn’t do well publicising the offer, which meant that most people hadn’t heard of it, and hence you had to convince people the offer was bona fide.

And even when you did convince people, they still weren’t sure, it was the government after all, there had to be a catch. And there never was one, and when people are told there is no catch, that this is actually something for nothing, you quite literally get a door in your face. It’s really not a good feeling when you get a door in the face like that, or when any offer of good faith is shot down like that, you feel like you have failed in earning someone’s trust, that they view you as a cheat and a liar.

It really says a lot about our modern society when those who approach others with good will and the intent of charity are viewed with suspicion and branded liars and cheats. When we ourselves are too terrified or uncomfortable to take charity from others because we cannot trust them. Our society has become one of distrust, where charitable acts are deemed out of the ordinary and viewed with mistrust, and that is, in my opinion, quite a failing on our part.

As usual, please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments, if you have any similar experiences, let us know. Thanks for reading.