(Personal notes) On the backlash against student activism

It’s been impossible to follow the news this month and not be aware of two interacting dynamics; revelations about abusive men, and anxieties about the implication of feminist and LGBTQ activism for ‘free speech’ on campus. Yet it also seems remarkable that so little of this coverage has noted any relationship between these two things. Very little coverage has acknowledged that the latter explicitly and directly position themselves against the former.

It’s also been impossible for any decent person to follow without some degree of introspection. I turn 30 next year and for the last month I’ve been thinking a lot about the person I was ten years ago. There was a lot to be proud of but also a lot of awful things. When I left school to go to University at 18, I had some very bad views and sensibilities on a lot of, if not almost all, social issues, which defined a lot of my teens and early 20s. Like too many young men, even though I thought of myself as radical and progressive, I remained fairly racist, pretty misogynist, with a lot of anger and entitlement, often making edgy ‘jokes’, and I acted in all sorts of entitled ways. Jared O’Mara’s scandal provoked me go back and look at old forum comments I made, and it was a fairly distressing experience to re-encounter past digital selves giving animus to those attitudes and making gags at other peoples expense (alongside the expected embarrassing and rubbish political views). I don’t know if I can say precisely how much I’ve developed since then because ultimately thats a matter for others to judge, but for a long while now I’ve looked at how I was then and felt appalled. I think about how I am now and feel a lot more at ease, and certainly feel a lot better about myself.

It was people who challenged me on this stuff who made the difference and to whom I owe any growth. People who put endless amounts of time into calling me up on bad language, crass comments, and shitty jokes, and who patiently explained why certain words and phrases weren’t acceptable. I had some really great university teachers who took time to explain notions and the intersections of patriarchy, gender, violence, racism, colonialism, and how they shape our world-views. They unflinchingly talked about these problems and set feminist and anti-racist texts in classes, and emphasised the power of language. I spent time working and campaigning among student groups in the UK and Canada who were more versed in dealing with concepts of oppression, and people introduced me to concepts like power and privilege, safe spaces policies, and content notes/trigger warnings for the first time. Encountering these via the medium of living activists, not outrage pieces in the press, helped me think differently about them when I encountered them again later. Good role models and friends as well as activists, and campaigners I worked with as part of student politics challenged me, often to their own exhaustion, and I took a long time to catch up to what anyone had tried to teach me. We are all in, and are the beneficiaries or victims of, relationships of power in different ways, and undoing the worst of these systems is the work of lifetimes, not moments. But people don’t change by magic.

This is one part of why  it’s so important to challenge the current backlash against student activism. It’s vital that we push back against a reaction to calls for intersectional and de-colonial thought (as seen in the demonisation of Lola Olufemi in the Daily Telegraph this week), and oppose reductive criticisms of ‘identity politics’ across the political spectrum. It’s vital that we challenge the vilification of the tools young people are asking for to deal with the problems they face, like safe spaces policies and trigger warnings. There is a genuinely dangerous move afoot to restrict and uproot the activism and political engagement of young people in the UK. It should be confronted.

It seems absurd to me that in press narratives these two stories, one about the vileness of abusive men, the other about how dangerous youthful, intersectionally-minded, activists are, sit side by side but are never brought to bear on each other. It might be because that would require acknowledging that the latter are actually the frontline working against the creation of the former, and that press exposés after the fact are less effective than organised and direct engagement. While they inevitably make mistakes, young anti-racist, queer, and feminist activists are often labouring to exhaustion, (mostly unpaid with the exception of a few SU officers), challenging and pushing other young people (especially young (cisgender) men), to do better and to be better. And they get harassed, picked on, and bullied for doing it.  If you find yourself echoing the press and politicians who rail against these activists (often the same side also gunning for anti-Brexit academics), it might be worth considering what side you’re on.


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