The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement

David Barclay, President of the Oxford University Student Union, writes for Left Foot Forward on the language of the student movement, following the NUS conference.

The National Union of Students annual national conference took place last week; David Barclay, President of the Oxford University Student Union, writes for Left Foot Forward on the language of the student movement, arguing that many delegates to the conference fell into the trap of using a dehumanising rhetoric which is actually the hallmark of what students are trying to fight against

Running late for the next debate, I tried to dodge the hordes of eager activists flyering everything and anything that moved in a desperate attempt to earn our votes. Yet one of their slogans stuck with me as I headed up the steps to the main hall of the NUS National Conference – ‘Vote Joe Bloggs to fight cuts, racism and war’. It took me a few seconds before I realised the delicious irony of this bold promise to ‘fight war’; I chuckled to myself, told a few friends and moved on.

But now, three days after the close of the 2011 conference, I realise that what could seem like just a poorly chosen strapline may in fact hold the clue to why I spent the last few days agreeing with the substance of almost everything that was said whilst all the time feeling deeply uncomfortable and worrying seriously for the future of the student movement.

This gut feeling of unease came upon me most powerfully in the many references made to the failings of the Conservative party and the extreme right. Over the three-day event, delegates were bombarded with references to ‘Tory scum’ and ‘the cabinet of billionaires’. These people had ‘launched an attack on hope’ and ‘decimated the welfare state’. Their only priority was ‘money, money, money’ and they would stop at nothing to ruin the lives of ordinary people.

At the same time speeches railed against ‘the racist thugs of the BNP’ and their ‘scumbag friends in the EDL’. These people, though you’d be forgiven for thinking they were barely better than animals, had to be ‘crushed’ and ‘driven from our communities’. Proud references were made, to raucous applause, of students literally fighting members of the English Defence League in the towns of the North West.

Now please don’t get me wrong, I am no apologist for the political right. I believe the coalition’s cuts agenda is needlessly damaging the very fabric of British society, I find the right’s rhetoric on immigration revolting and I am convinced the recent changes to higher education could cost our country a generation of bright students from poor backgrounds who will never now go on to university.

Like so many other British citizens I yearn for the day when the BNP and the EDL cease to be a recognisable force in British politics, and am truly proud of those students who dedicate extraordinary time and energy towards combating their language of racism and fear. Yet I just couldn’t identify with a rhetoric which seemed to be parroting the very thing which make our political enemies so objectionable in the first place – an ability to dehumanise ‘the other’.

That is at the heart of what makes the BNP so objectionable; they see people as fundamentally less valuable based on aspects of their identity, be it race or religion, and that is totally unacceptable in any civilised society. But there is a real danger in the student movement that by using the language of violence and hate we lose the one thing which truly elevates our cause. Members of the BNP are thoroughly misguided, often very scared of change in their communities and fixated on an imaginary vision of the past, but they are still human beings.

As soon as we lose sight of that, we’re just two sets of people who hate each other.

This problem seems to have spilled over into the reaction to the coalition’s policies. There are many things our government has done which can be legitimately criticised, but the fact that one brave delegate felt it necessary to point out that he was a member of the Conservative party and yet he was ‘not scum’ shows how our overly-aggressive criticism just misses the point. There is a line in all politics between legitimate anger at policies and ideas with which you profoundly disagree, and personal attacks that seek to undermine the humanity and dignity of those you oppose.

The former are desperately needed by the student movement and the NUS right now; the latter will only alienate us from the mainstream of public opinion and many of our own members who might happen to agree with some or all of the government’s policies without harbouring a fundamental desire to destroy the welfare state, swim in a huge pile of money or destroy the hopes and dreams of a generation of working class children.

At a time when students are rightfully angry at a government which has betrayed and alienated them, the student movement needs to move beyond this problem of fighting dehumanisation with dehumanising rhetoric, so neatly summed up in the claim to want to ‘fight war’. Those figures most inspirational to young politicians – William Wilberforce, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King – were all able to transcend the language of hate whilst fighting against the most despicable and unbearable injustices.

Interestingly, they were all Christians, and surely had the words of Jesus to ‘love your enemies’ and ‘bless those who persecute you’ ringing in their ears throughout their political careers.

Whatever our faith traditions, our movement may just be defined in the coming months and years by our ability to register our anger and frustration whilst maintaining a fundamental respect for the basic humanity of all involved in public life.

Only by doing so will we create a true ‘narrative of the alternative’ to follow our ‘march for the alternative’ and begin to make real change for our members and the whole country.

45 Responses to “The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement”

  1. Lee Chalmers

    RT @leftfootfwd: The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement: http://bit.ly/h0qevP by @OUSUnews president David Barclay <YES!

  2. Jason Kay

    RT @leechalmers: RT @leftfootfwd: The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement: http://bit.ly/h0qevP by @OUSUnews presiden …

  3. Knut Cayce

    RT @leftfootfwd: The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement: http://bit.ly/h0qevP by @OUSUnews president David Barclay

  4. Jonny Medland

    Good take on rhetoric at #nusnc11 by @ousunews President @DTBarclay http://t.co/ljtzhHK. Wasn't there but all rings true @leftfootfwd

  5. Callum Munro

    RT @JonnyMedland: Good take on rhetoric at #nusnc11 by @ousunews President @DTBarclay http://t.co/ljtzhHK <– Well worth a read!!

  6. dtbarclay

    RT @leftfootfwd: The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement: http://bit.ly/h0qevP by @OUSUnews president David Barclay

  7. Thomas Chigbo

    Everyone involved in @nusuk at should read this article by @ousunews President @DTBarclay at @leftfootfwd: http://t.co/ljtzhHK #nusnc11

  8. Emma Donaldson

    RT @leftfootfwd: The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement: http://bit.ly/h0qevP by @OUSUnews president David Barclay

  9. Damien Tuffnell

    RT @leftfootfwd: The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement http://bit.ly/eipCod

  10. Miko Flohr

    Raak stukje dit. Gaat over dehumanizing the other – toegepast op Engeland, maar zo waar ook in Nederland. http://bit.ly/hAME1T

  11. Miko Flohr

    "Als we stoppen de ander als mens te zien zijn we gewoon twee groepen die elkaar haten". Joop vs GeenStijl dus. http://bit.ly/hAME1T

  12. Patrick Kerr

    The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement: Yet one of their slogans stuck with me as I headed u… http://bit.ly/hcfcn9

  13. Ben Sztejka

    RT @leftfootfwd: The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement: http://bit.ly/h0qevP by @OUSUnews president David Barclay

  14. Jack Matthews

    Interesting piece by @DTBarclay on the dehumanising language used within the NUS. #nusnc11 http://tinyurl.com/3umgo6d

  15. Finchampstead Boy

    RT @jackjmatthews: Interesting piece by @DTBarclay on the dehumanising language used within the NUS. #nusnc11 http://tinyurl.com/3umgo6d

  16. Josh White

    Could not really agree more with this. @ousunews President @DTBarclay at @leftfootfwd: http://t.co/ljtzhHK (via @TomChigbo)

  17. Amanda Hsieh

    Yes I am very angry, but… RT @leftfootfwd: The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement http://bit.ly/eipCod #demo11

  18. Church of Labour

    Can we just agree that WE ARE ALL HUMAN before The Party, and should water down our politics thus? http://bit.ly/eipCod

  19. Stephen W

    You are absolutely right. And it is so sad too.

    Fighting hate with hate only leads to more hate. Yet that seems to be precisely what so many on the radical left are obssessed with. Just a excuse for more hate.

    Until we utterly reject this from our political discourse, whether on left or right, then we will never know peace or understanding.

    You are much more likely to convince someone’s he’s wrong if you approach him sympathetically with an attempt at understanding rather than screaming “Tory Scum” into his face.

  20. James

    Jesus, I know my politics & Barclay's are about as dissimilar as they come, but this article is just… bad. http://bit.ly/etApVG

  21. Alex Blower

    Completely agree, very glad I took a minte to read this.

  22. Paul

    This comes down to a fundamentally divergent opinion on where this change is coming from, and therefore what tactics might be needed to overcome them.
    Whilst from the liberal left the rhetoric is more placid, it’s also based upon an assumption that the current position of HE and FE is due to political decision made within a specific political sphere. The aim, therefore, would be to influence those decisions through slowly influencing policy- whether via lobbying, persuasion, voting etc.
    For those further to the left (although, to be honest, I find the SWP rhetoric very clumsy too) the logic would be that these decisions are not the result of policy but the result of economic forces, and hence the tactics to defeat them would be a serious mobilisation of other economic forces- that is, the productive forces of the working class- to overcome them. The rhetoric of persuasion and the rhetoric of mobilisation are two very different beasts. It’s wrong to assume that because you see social change coming through lobbying, others share those aims. To be fair to them, the far-left have capitalised on the fact that those who wish to lobby power (and, let’s face it, one day attain that power themselves) have been totally ineffective and weak. Their attempts to put up any robust defence of their position were also hardly conciliatory- to call your own union members “despicable” being evidence of this.

    Although I would never identify with the tactics or analysis of much of the hard left, the basic premise is right. To think that a robust defence of students can be mounted within an economic situation tending towards the consolidation of capital may seem wonderfully pragmatic, but is actually painfully naive. Future generations will not thank us for a handful of scholarships when we face a US style education system.

    The job of the far-left should now be to really consider their rhetoric, to pull it out of the quagmire of 1980’s– or even 1930’s– nostalgia.

    That’s all in theory- in actuality, of course, many are drawn to the hard-left for totally different reasons- misguided romance, yes- but also sheer anger, clumsy hatred etc. It’s time for the intelligent voices of critical analysis on the far-left to make their voices heard, or the party-builders will drive away angry students into the arms of the professional politicians with the slick rhetoric and the total inability to enact positive change. I like to call them the “Cleggers”

  23. Alex

    Hmmmm. I’ll concentrate on one element here for the moment.

    The same Jesus who is reported to have said love your enemies also said “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household” (Matthew 10:34-39), “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53), he advised his followers to buy a sword (Luke 22:36) and so on. This is not to want to get into a full on discussion of Biblical exegesis, or theological history, but the relationship between Christianity, violence and peace and division is a really significantly more complex than you allow. In particular, let us remember that Jesus believed that when the end of the world came (at a time that was fairly obviously thought to be fairly close by his early followers), those who hadn’t helped the poor and so on would be thrown into eternal punishment.

    I’ll respond to the political substance soon.

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  25. Grels

    I think it’s generally symptomatic of the language our society uses. Increasingly only the superlative is appropriate. Perhaps it is “americanisation” I’m not so sure, but it does seem a model of entrenchment in political discourse. I guess it is no surprise that the children of Blair are fluent in emotive-politics also.

  26. Simon London

    Mr. Barclay – you say that:

    “That is at the heart of what makes the BNP so objectionable; they see people as fundamentally less valuable based on aspects of their identity, be it race or religion, and that is totally unacceptable in any civilised society.”

    What you call “objectionable” is the simple truth. Some people are less valuable – in OUR society – based on their race or religion. Human beings are not all the same, and only fools or useful idiots insist that they are in the face of the evidence.

    Mass importation of racially incompatible third world types, inevitably makes our civilised society more like the less civilised societies the importees developed, does it not?

    Even more importantly, mass immigration threatens the existence of the English people in their own land. Do you think the English have a right to life in their own land Mr. Barclay?

  27. Daniel Pitt

    The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement: http://bit.ly/h0qevP #ConDemNation

  28. Paul Dunne

    RT @NUS_Liam RT @leftfootfwd The dehumanising rhetoric undermining the student movement: http://bit.ly/h0qevP by (cont) http://tl.gd/9ummi8

  29. Simon London

    Come now Mr. Barclay, I know you have read these comments, and I would like to have your answer to these questions:

    If we import people from the third world, our “civilised” country will come to resemble the third world, won’t it?

    Some people are more valuable in OUR society, are they not? The races are NOT all the same are they?

    Most importantly Mr. Barclay, will you please tell us your answer to the existential question:

    Do the English have a right to life in their own land?

    Thank you.

  30. Richie N.

    This basically amounts to a plea to ‘keep it polite’, which is embarassingly bourgeois. It is all well and good if you are in an Oxford University debating society, but when people’s lives really are being destroyed and people really are being dehumanised by government policies, such as an overt withdrawal of support for the disabled or jobcentre targets for withdrawing benefits to the unemployed, then angry language in response is more than justified. And the notion that urging people to ‘fight’ or calling Tory ministers ‘scum’ amounts to ‘dehumanising’ them is very simplistic and shows a marked lack of understanding of the nuances of language. This is language that conveys moral outrage and which calls the basic decency and morality of those imposing such policies into question – and rightly so. If you are made uncomfortable by such language then I think you fundamentally lack the experience to understand the depth of feeling here.

    One final point as well. You say:

    “many of our own members might happen to agree with some or all of the government’s policies without harbouring a fundamental desire to destroy the welfare state, swim in a huge pile of money or destroy the hopes and dreams of a generation of working class children.”

    If that is so then they have obviously not understood the policies, because with the exception of the silly middle example, these things are quite straightforwardly what those policies are doing. We are not dealing in shades of grey with this government, and the language you highlight faithfully reflects that.

  31. Richie N.

    Simon London (above) AKA ‘a racist’.

  32. Simon London

    @Richie N. – What kind of retard throws meaningless insults in the face of serious questions? What exactly is your point?

    Tell us, in your view, do the English have a right to life in their own land?

  33. David Barclay

    Paul – you make a good point, but I think I would still pose this issue of ends and means even to someone whose ultimate aim was the total overthrow of the economic, political or social system. It just seems such a slippery slope to me to suggest that some amount of hatred or dehumanisation is justified in pursuit of an alternative system characterised by less hate and dehumanisation.

    Richie N – There is absolutely nothing nuanced about calling people scum. There is a line between legitimate anger and hatred and I see it being crossed in the student movement and I think that’s dangerous. How bad the Coalition’s policies are is not the issue. Look at Martin Luther King – unquestionably fighting against a horrific, endemic, systemic evil (the Coalition haven’t started lynching people quite yet) – and yet he still said “let no man pull you low enough to hate him.” Was he angry? Of course he was. Did he hate the people he was fighting against? No. Was he both an extraordinarily moral man and a fundamentally successful political operator? Yes. So why can’t he be our model? Needless to say he was also about as far away from bourgeois Oxford as it is possible to get…

  34. Simon London

    Mr. Barclay – you haven’t answered my question:

    Do the English have a right to life in their own land?

    It’s very simple – yes or no.

    Your genuflecting to Martin “not my real name” King is at once embarrassing and very funny. King was an intellectual fraud, serial plagiariser, serial adulterer. Not a “Doctor”, not a “Reverend”, just a hypocrite, thief and charlatan.

    http://nationalvanguard.org/2010/09/the-beast-as-saint-the-truth-about-martin-luther-king/

    Anyway, the question again, in case you missed it:

    Do the English have a right to life in their own land?

  35. Richie N.

    Simon – I think my insult was pretty meaningful actually, and measured. ‘Retard’ on the other hand really does meet the definition of a ‘meaningless insult’, and a highly offensive one to those of us who may have loved ones with learning difficulties. I don’t regard your questions as serious –

    ‘Do the English have a right to life in their own land?’.

    Even as a question that’s just so full of bullshit ethnic nationalist assumptions that it’s best to simply ignore it. And indeed that’s what I’ll do when you post the inevitable angry, indignant and barely coherent response. You’re on the wrong forum – try the website of the English Defence League.

    Simon – I think you’re overplaying the parallel with Martin Luther King, which isn’t very relevant for all kinds of historical reasons. Admire his ethical position by all means if you want, but don’t confuse it with the effectiveness of the civil rights movement, which was not even primarily the result of King’s efforts. For every Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi there’s a Malcolm X or Che Guevara, because the quaint morality of ‘turn the other cheek’ so rarely works. But the more pertinent parallels here are in the Labour movement, where fiery rhetoric has often gone hand in hand with visionary progress rather than prevented it. Just look at the early speeches of Aneurin Bevan.

    As for the idea that hateful language is ‘dangerous’, in the context of the student movement I don’t think that holds water. Yes in the context of Civil Rights hateful rhetoric inflamed racial violence, which you may or may not believe was harmful to the civil rights cause (I’m not at all sure that it was actually). But in the context of student protest what would the equivalent be – I hardly think we’re going to see another Baader Meinhof or Red Army Faction!

    Your real fear then is that it will alienate ‘the public’, but that has been used as an argument against ‘excessive’ radicalism for decades. The fact is that the conservative media will misrepresent the students regardless. And I think it’s interesting that this sort of view aligns you more closely with the politics of the outgoing NUS president than the incoming one.

  36. Richie N.

    Second set of comments above were addressed to David not Simon.

  37. Simon London

    @Richie N.

    “Racist” is indeed meaningless, just an attack word to avoid argument. Tell me Richie, what was “racism” called before the word was coined a mere hundred years ago?

    You claim that you “don’t regard… as serious” the question:

    Do the English have a right to life in their own land?

    If that were true, you would indeed be a retard, in the sense of being mentally disabled. “Special”, if it makes you feel better.

    However, I don’t believe you. Apart from the existential nature of the question, the fact that you are so afraid of it proves that you take it very seriously.

    The truth, as we both know, is that you dare not answer the question, for either possible answer leads to conclusions that are not compatible with your conformity and adopted faith.

    What say you Mr. Barclay?

  38. David Barclay

    Richie – My point about Luther King is not that he was personally responsible for all the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. My point is that he got stuff done, he made change happen. Obama would be an equally valid example – he deliberately chose a language of hope when I imagine we’d both agree there was plenty to hate about the Republican Party, and he was phenomenally successful. My argument then is that the language of hate is not a prerequisite of political success. You’re right that my key concern is alienation. Of the public, yes (and the media misrepresenting us never absolves us of responsibility to represent ourselves the way we want to be represented), but also of our own members. As the article said, I was personally alienated and demotivated by the kind of language used at the NUS Conference. And the responses to the article suggest I’m not alone in that. So the question becomes – what is the benefit of using the language of hate, and how does it outweigh the unquestionable negative consequences of alienation?

  39. Simon London

    Mr. Barclay,

    Do the English have a right to life in their own land?

  40. David Barclay

    Simon who are the English?

  41. Simon London

    Ah, a response, thank you Mr. Barclay.

    You are an Oxford undergraduate. It’s not a trick question. You know full well who the English are. The English are the people after which England is called. That distinct, identifiable and self identifying racial group.

    Do they have a right to life in their own land?

    Now we are engaged, I’d like to introduce another question:

    Do the Tibetans have a right to life in their own land?

  42. Simon London

    Mr. Barclay,

    Please answer these simple questions. You don’t want the readers of this blog to think that you are running away from the questions, do you?

    Do the English have a right to life in their own land?

    Do the Tibetans have a right to life in their own land?

    Thank you.

  43. Leah

    At the tisk of feeding a troll:

    Simon, England is named after the Angles, an ethnic (note: not racial) group. They were actually German (well, Germanic, originally) and settled in England after Rome fell. They weren’t even the only group to settle in England at the time – just a big one.

    Unless you are a pure-bred Angle, then, are you saying that you aren’t English? It’s not a racial group, by the way. For example, the Cornish are English but traditionally are ethnically Celtic. If you are a pure-bred Angle, get back to where you came from! Sodding immigrants.

    Also, you seem to believe that people with learning disabilities are worth less than you. They aren’t. It’s very nasty to use their conditions as insults.

  44. James

    Simon, you sir, are an idiot. Thanks for the entertainment.

    Tell me Mr. Simon, why do my fingers go wrinkly in the bath? Tell me Simon. Come on, tell me.

    Oh no, wait, it’s an irrelevant and stupid question. IT’S OK JUST IGNORE IT YAH.

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