I only ever dipped my toe into the water of student politics. For some it is a serious, passionate conversation, for others it is a vague annoyance you encounter on the way to a morning lecture. With many, I sat somewhere in-between. There is undeniably a problem with student engagement in the running of their campuses. Despite student groups being at the forefront of (usually left-wing) national and international causes – from anti-austerity voices to marches against Trump – there is a consistent lack of interest in the local politics which govern a university itself. Voting turnout for union elections is consistently low and apathy towards bodies such as the National Union of Students is growing.
It seems, rather than worrying about the running of universities themselves, students are more concerned with how symbolic their voices are in response to wider world concerns.
This is potentially what led to the election of Edward Snowden for rector of Glasgow University in 2014. A role which in practice is largely practical, with responsibilities for advocating the interests of students at their representative council, was given to a man who could not enter the country. While many mocked the impracticality of the vote for Snowden, others celebrated the election and its clear indication of support for the exiled CIA agent and his battles with the NSA.
Snowden is not the first time that the students of Glasgow University have used their rector vote to cast a light on international affairs. The election of Winnie Mandela in 1987, for example, reflected not just the university’s stance against apartheid, but also the Glasgow wide effort to stand alongside those fighting for racial equality in South Africa.
“I think it speaks for the city, not just the university,” says Jack Smith, president of the Queen Margaret Student Union, about the position of rector.
This leads us to the now, and the fact that the university, this week, have the option to vote for alt-right poster-boy Milo Yiannopoulos to fill Snowden’s shoes.
The former Breitbart News editor and Donald Trump supporter, slated for his comments on Islam, trans-rights and rape, received the nomination from students driven, they claim, by desire for an “end to the intolerant, authoritarian silence-everyone-who-disagrees-with-me attitude of these people”. While it’s technically unclear from their Facebook page as to who “these people” actually are, it is fair to say that this nomination is a reaction to the values of the so-called “liberal-elite” who have been the target of abuse from all factions of the populists right.
“It is difficult to understand why [Yiannopoulos] was nominated,” says Smith “But I guess that’s because the people who support him don’t actually feel that they’re being listened to.” And he is correct: Yiannopoulos’ popularity thrives on the ability to characterise progressiveness as a drawback to his fans.
“Just read any New York Times or Atlantic article about safe spaces and trigger warnings. If Glasgow students want to break away from the snowflake stereotype – and I hope they do – then I’ll gladly represent them, and push back against any member of the administration that tries to impose a culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces” Yiannopoulos told The Glasgow Guardian, the university’s paper.
And this is the crux of the problem with oncampus discussion. While universities across the world have adapted the language of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no platforming’ for speakers with views deemed controversial, others have found their voices subsequently excluded from the debate.
“Snowflake” is the term rolled out by those who feel threatened by this new cultural sensitivity. For those who read efforts to gain equality as stifling to their own freedoms, current on campus debates about trigger warnings and ‘privilege’ are isolating. Responses of condemnation and cries for boycotting from Glasgow’s Feminist society and LGBTQI+ Society are exactly the kind of responses which the supporters of Yiannopoulos want to stir.
Are we really becoming too culturally sensitive at the expense of vigorous debate? So topical is this question that it formed the subject of a recent Channel 4 documentary by Labour’s former go-to-guy on equality Trevor Philips. Has Political Correctness Gone Mad? made the case that, by defining the realms of acceptability in public conversation, the so-called “liberal elite” are actually responsible for the atmosphere which led to the rise of the Trump and Farage movements on both sides of the Atlantic.
Philips claims that, in order to progress, “we may need to start learning to live with offence.” But what this fails to recognise is that those who tend to cause the offence are themselves rarely tolerating of the views of others. While (mostly anonymous) supporters of Yiannopoulos and his type lambast the end to free speech, they frequently fight to curtail those who cross them. In response to the ‘silencing’ of liberals, Yiannopoulos is proposing to ban Glasgow’s Muslim Students Association if he is elected. The fight against banning things is being fought by people who want to ban other things.
Whether Yiannopoulos is elected by the students of Glasgow or not, the ridiculousness of the free speech moral panic is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Glasgow Rector polling closes on the 21st March and results will be announced on the 22nd.
This article was originally published on The Huffington Post UK