Healthy disagreement and debate amongst student societies is crucial to a vibrant university atmosphere. However, there appears to be a nasty culture in certain societies to opt for confrontational politics, and what is increasingly an agenda of censorship and intimidation.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, we are not dealing with the internal politics of Soviet Russia here, in power terms, student societies sit somewhere between a primary school council and a church fete committee.
Yet some of the recent behaviour exhibited by members of societies would be far more familiar to Russians of the 1950’s, than to students at an educational institution.
Take the recent incident regarding York Conservative Society’s fox hunting themed social, in which the male members of the society were encouraged to dress as fox-hunters and females as the hunted. Whilst many, including the executive of TorySoc, thought this was a tongue-in-cheek idea for a fancy dress theme, others took offence. Any reasonable person who has thought for more than 30 seconds about the idea of encouraging females to dress as animals that are to be hunted around York city centre, and still thinks it’s a good idea should probably not have made it as far as higher education. However, if we simply put this idea down to a lapse in judgement (and a fairly minor one in the grand scheme of things; let me direct you to Durham University’s St Cuthbert’s Rugby Club’s Jimmy Saville themed social), then it makes the reaction of members of certain vegetable friendly societies even more bizarre.
As a result of this planned event, and as seems to be the trend, there was a sudden lurch toward hysterical, aggressive and confrontational politics by opposing societies. TorySoc was subjected to threatening and abusive torrents over social media. were apparently pressured by Conservative headquarters into cancelling the event.There appear to have been two main grievances being angrily expressed. The first coming from a feminist angle, and the second from a militant anti-fox hunting position.
However, let me first make one thing clear; this was in no part a political statement, on behalf of the Conservative society, in support of fox hunting (although if it had been I would whole-heartedly defend their right to have made it, without suffering threats). Furthermore, I am confidently assured that many of TorySoc’s members who were taking part, are actually anti-fox hunting. Clearly then, anybody attacking the social on the grounds of anti-hunting made a serious miscalculation.
Yet there is scope here for actual offence. The fox hunting themed social can be seen as degrading towards women. Few people would argue against this (UKIP voters being the obvious exception-probably). But does an error of judgement by TorySoc give individuals the right to engage in aggressive and intimidating behaviour in the name of women? Certainly not.
So what is the charge? An overzealous and ham-fisted attempt at standing up for feminism, or a misidentified effort to censor the right of a political society to make a political statement about hunting? Either way, it doesn’t look good. All too frequently University political societies define themselves by what they don’t like, rather than what they want, in this atmosphere ideological rivals are not just mistaken, they’re evil, enemies that must be purged. This kind of inflammatory rhetoric only serves to legitimise the barmy actions of the students who chose to abuse members of TorySoc.
Why could the objections to this social not have been raised politely to the Conservative society, giving them the opportunity to amend their event? Instead, a strange parallel universe appears to exist in the York student community, in which some societies feel it is acceptable to jump headily into confrontation and intimidation, before making any attempt at reconciliation.
The resort to threat making in order to further political agendas only angers and entrenches the opposition, and worse still, it disengages others altogether. FemSoc, VegSoc promote worthwhile student causes. But I cannot help feeling that so much misdirected passion, as in the case of “foxgate”, does their causes far more harm than good. Ultimately, this is the problem with student politics; individuals getting very angry about very little.
As amusing as inter-societal spats can be, I hope I’ve highlighted their darker side. I for one, would far rather be part of a student community which is inclusive, and works towards breaking down the barriers of the outside world, rather than reinforcing them.