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The State of the Student Body: The Silent Majority and the Noisy Zealots

15/01/2015 12:14 | Updated 14 March 2015

An article by Brendan O'Neill in a November issue of the Spectator magazine remained the most read article on the Spectator website until late December, with the article amassing almost 1,500 comments. O'Neill laments the current state of the students in British society, his central arguments being that they are too quick to take offense, that they shut down debate and are perpetuate a dangerous culture of censoriousness. The popularity (in terms of views anyway) of the article demonstrates an interest in the topic of the state of the student body; a topic which isn't scrutinised enough. At his most sensational, O'Neill urges that it is necessary to "urgently...update your mind's picture bank" on the idea that students are free-spirited, open-minded and popping at orthodoxies. "Students are now pretty much the opposite of that. It's hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have."

O'Neill's article was triggered by his experience at Oxford in which the debate he was planning to participate in ended up being cancelled, out of fear of 300 students, rallied on by certain Oxford feminists, turning up to the event and boycotting it through physical intimidation. The debate was between O'Neill and another commentator, Tim Stanley, on the motion that 'This House Believes Britain's Abortion Cultures Hurts Us All' and it was boycotted on the basis that two men shouldn't debate so sensitive a women's issue. I think this paints quite a fair picture of what took place, but to find out more do check out O'Neill's article, as well as the podcast within it of him taking on the Oxford student Harriet Brown, and the Independent article which he refers to by Oxford student Niamh McIntyre.

It's clear enough that O'Neill's experience was quite shocking, touching on these issues of censoriousness, moralising and taking offense within the student body. I've written an article on these issues before when there was an attempt by certain feminists at my previous university of York to ban the Student Union shop from selling The Sun. Similar criticisms levelled against that attempted ban can also be levelled against those that boycotted the Oxford debate. The feminists stopping the debate meant they claimed that their moral and intellectual faculties were of a higher standard than any other student at Oxford. It said that we are making political and moral choices on behalf of other students which, as O'Neill pointed out, is incredibly patronising.

The arguments deployed by the Oxford student Harriet Brown in her Podcast debate with O'Neill, are easily refuted by O'Neill, especially in the podcast. But perhaps more damaging than their inability to formulate a decent argument is that Brown and McInytre, as self-appointed representatives of feminism -which undoubtedly they are since they chose to express themselves in national outlets-discredit the cause that they so care about. As with the attempt to ban The Sun at York, the hostile tactics and the moralising sentiment of the Oxford feminists detracted from their cause.

In the Podcast, Brown comes across awfully. She spoke over O'Neill, spoke with snide aggression and the culmination of her diatribe was her revelation about O'Neill that "I've never even suggested that I judge you because you're a man. I judge you because you're an arsehole. And I think you're an arsehole because you've been socialised as a man that has never had to consider these things [e.g. abortion]." Why can't a man consider these things? Why can't he care about women's rights and advocate them (as the 'arsehole' O'Neill was attempting to do by opposing the anti-abortion debate motion)? Why can't a white man advocate racial equality? Or an Atheist attack Islamophobia? Why should the accident of our biological composition define our capacity to care and advocate about an issue? Movements and ideas require a broad-based coalition and Brown in that single podcast diminished the cause of feminism more than she's ever contributed to it. This whole sorry episode would have generated far more cynicism about feminism than support.

The dangerous culture in the student body of censoring on spurious grounds and arrogant self-righteousness can be seen elsewhere. In for instance students at the University of Leeds throwing fake blood at the BAE stall at a careers fair. If you don't like BAE, avoid their stall. Don't deny other students their right to choose whether or not to visit it. Amongst parts of the student body, there is a bizarre obsession with 'lad culture', where blokes who like drinking beer, playing sport and going out are depicted as The Antichrist. So big an issue is this that the NUS (the National Union of Students, the supposed representative body of students that I suspect many students haven't even heard of) deemed it necessary to hold a grand 'Lad Culture Summit.' Esteemed NUS President Toni Pearce at the end of her closing remarks issued the battle cry "Now go back to your campuses and get rid of lad culture." There are undoubtedly far too many instances of sexism within universities that need to be tackled, with the moronic and misogynistic literature that the LSE rugby club published last term being just one example of this. But is the lads-are-villains approach really the most sophisticated and inclusive solution? On a personal level, the comment editor of a student paper refused to publish my piece criticising the evangelical tendencies of the Christian Union on the basis that religion is too sensitive a subject matter and my arguments might cause offence.

However, and this is where O'Neill's analysis goes awry, the boycotting of the abortion debate didn't represent the attitudes of most of the students of the University of Oxford. Rather, it constituted a victory for a galvanised minority. The claims by O'Neill that "They're everywhere. On campuses across the land," suggests there are far more of these types of students than there actually are. Rather, a vocal minority of students, of the ilk O'Neill describes, frequently manage to monopolise student representation and enforce the perception to outsiders (such as O'Neill), that they are typical of the student body as whole. Most Oxford students wouldn't have wanted that debate stopped. Most students aren't as obsessed with 'lad culture' as the NUS. Most students don't mind religion being criticised. But the silent majority has been overwhelmed by the noisy zealots.

O'Neill implies that, in contrast to conformist students of the 21st century, students of the 20th century were far more radical, open to rock music and risky political ideas. O'Neill thus indulges in the widespread myth that students, especially in the 1960s, were uniformly free-spirited, open-minded and popping at orthodoxies. This historical narrative disregards the historical debate, in which one side questions whether certain decades of the 20th century were as radical as if often assumed. As the famous sixties photographer David Bailey noted, the 'Swinging Sixties' were in fact a "very elitist thing" confined to "2000 people living in London." Some level of historical sophistication surely matters. If O'Neill can only confer superficial insights into how students used to be, by perpetuating the simplistic narrative that students used to be uniformly radical, it weakens his capacity to analyse the current state of the student body, or come up with useful suggestions for where it should go.

Though paint-brush characterisations such as O'Neill's can debase the quality of discussion, they do inform popular perception. I'd suggest that what characterises the student body far more than student censorship is student indifference. Indifference to student politicians and indifference to the off-putting, somewhat unnerving student activism that dominates today. Student politicians or 'representatives' are far more likely to engender derision than respect. Perhaps because student politics frequently, though of course not always, attracts individuals where there is mismatch between ambition and actual ability (much like the current politicians we've been blessed with). Turnout at the Student Union elections at York were 34% in 2013. LSE was at 26%. Sussex gained 33%. Only one Student Union has ever managed a turnout of over 50%-St Andrews.

The slightly jarring fetishising of democracy at every level of the student life-from the modest Cooking Soc to the heady heights of a Student Union-puts those off who don't want to go through the rather humbling and farcical experience of making a speech to a room of ten people in which the remaining 190 seats are empty. Most students just don't have the desire or indeed will-power to read what are invariably dull campaign manifestos for say 'Student Union Activities Officer' or 'Society Treasurer'. Why would you when you can read a moderately witty BuzzFeed article about '41 Things That Will Make You Grin Like An Absolute Fool'? Or watch a vaguely funny video on the Lad Bible Facebook page of a car driving past an ostrich on a dual carriage way? (A page which has over 100 times the likes of the NUS Facebook page-7.6 million to the NUS's 55,000.)

Still, it's so easy to mock those who run for student office, as I have just done. It takes bravery and passion to run for positions, even more so when in that empty room the ten people listening to you probably don't really give a shit about anything you have to say. Or if your friends think your decision to run a not particularly 'cool' thing to do. I ran for positions three times at my undergraduate university, decidedly failing on two occasions and it was an unpleasant, though character-developing experience. My solution in third year was to rather dictatorially, if shrewdly, set up a body with others in which I appointed myself head, and where we interviewed people for positions in the committee, a process which ensured a level of quality we don't think we'd have had if we ran an election.

It also takes passion and guts to take part in student activism, especially when the national media get involved, or if you're up against majority opinion. Of course, student activism that affronts, challenges and even unnerves is needed. But the kind of student activism which O'Neill and I have alluded to is all too rife and is squeezing out an alternative, more benign and collective approach that is just as needed. Current student activism all too often puts people off getting involved in causes, even if they care about them. Nowhere is this more of an issue than in student feminism. Which is dangerous, given how important feminism is, especially in such formative contexts as universities. A more inclusive approach to student activism, and indeed student politics, would ensure a more engaged and vibrant student body. It's time for the silent majority to re-emerge. And repudiate those such as O'Neill who seek to slander us.