Universities are the place for activism - why is there so much hate for student activists?

Historically, university students are the site of political movements that have fundamentally changed society and politics. To name but a few, in 1965, 250 students protested outside Edinburgh’s American embassy against the Vietnam War. In 1989, students demanding democracy and freedom of the press and of speech in Tiananmen Square, Beijing were massacred by the government. Worldwide, universities themselves have been locations of teach-ins and sit-ins during such protests, especially in the 60’s.  

Issues of the present day continue to politicise students up and down the UK. In 2014, Laura Coryton began the campaign against tampon tax while she was a student at Goldsmith’s University. The University of Leicester offers a course on Activism and Protest in the Information Age, which covers topics such as the US Black Lives Matter movement and the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. Which? University also has a list of the top universities for a political scene, for students who prioritise political activism in their criteria when choosing universities.

Yet there is heavy backlash against politics within universities, with some claiming that the campaigns at university are shielded from the realities of the world. They claim that university debates and student union elections are too sensitive to political correctness and that ‘noisy zealots’ drown out the silent majority. They also say that what students campaign for has no real impact in the wider scheme of things.

For example, in 2015, Brendan O’Neill was invited to Oxford University to debate with Tim Stanley - both journalists -  on the motion that ‘This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All’. It was boycotted by Oxford feminists on the basis that two men shouldn’t debate such a sensitive female issue. Both O’Neill and Stanley responded to the cancelled debates by writing articles that highlighted how the debate was not about abortion rights - which arguably is a woman’s issue more than a man’s - but about the culture surrounding it. Both lashed out at the students who were quick to judge, prevented a genuine discussion from happening, and ultimately put free speech under assault. (Links to their articles are below.)

Taking this example, I agree that (Leftist) students can become authoritarian - a few trigger words and they have the backing of the majority who would previously have been un-politicised, who stand by them because ‘smashing capitalism’ and ‘dismantling the patriarchy’ is what they’re told to do on Instagram. Students need to be careful - be noisy enough to be heard, but don’t shut down the opinions of others.

Universities are an extremely easy place to get everyone on your side. You’ll probably never meet so many people who have the same views as you in one place. This power needs to be used respectably.

This said, it’s impossible to draw the line between right and wrong, what is free speech and what is hate speech, how politically correct is too politically correct. Yet I don’t believe that students should be told to forget that they have an impact on this world. Students have SO MUCH power. The power to sway elections (if they pay attention to them), the power to fight for women’s rights (and support the men who do as well), and the power to empower other students. But remember that research and empathy is key. Grounded arguments begin with reliable facts and that result in stronger views – shouting assumptions will leave a messy trail that is difficult to follow.

Sources:

https://le.ac.uk/modules/ms3022

https://campus.one.org/stories/4-times-student-activists-changed-world/

https://university.which.co.uk/advice/student-life/top-unis-for-political-scene-which-university-student-survey

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Student_activism#United_Kingdom

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/jul/06/jo-swinson-student-politics-career

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/hallam-roffey/student-politics_b_12186566.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-student-activism

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/bridget-hamilton/young-people-changing-the-world_b_9619976.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-student-activism

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/daisy-hughes/we-are-all-in-this-togeth_2_b_6830730.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-student-activism

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/adam-seldon/student-politics_b_6458940.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-student-activism

https://www.theguardian.com/freshers-week/2016/sep/02/university-an-introduction-to-political-activism

Tim Stanley’s response:https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11239437/Oxford-students-shut-down-abortion-debate.-Free-speech-is-under-assault-on-campus.html

Brendon O’Neill’s http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/why-i-am-pro-choice/16221#.Wr2BcC7wapo

 

Images sources:

https://www.dissentmagazine.org/wp-content/files_mf/1505235993ISSERMANPBSS11961ENDTHEWAR666.jpg

https://giphy.com/gifs/vday-11b8CC4gstDAT6

https://giphy.com/gifs/funny-animation-cute-xT9IgpxorXdkhoQle8

https://giphy.com/gifs/drunkhistory-comedy-central-XKjsHBNARuzRVxXJbd