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.

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