Every year, student unions take stances on a variety of issues, and every year the common refrain of “don’t be political” is heard on our campus. Those who preach this gospel of neutrality assert that it is not the place of a students’ union to take stances on hot button issues. To do so is to be divisive and unrepresentative; as such, the membership would be better served if the union concentrated purely on services and “student issues.”
Indeed, there are some who serve on student unions who subscribe to this ideology — but I am not one of them. I believe that like everything, student unions are inherently political. Such is the nature of advocacy-based organizations; to pretend students and their union live in a vacuum divorced from the issues that surround us is misguided.
This past year, the executive committees of unions like the Arts and Science Student Union (ASSU) and the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU) have taken public stances on a wide scope of issues; they opposed anti-black racism, supported the TA strike, stood in solidarity with murdered students everywhere, and condemned violent acts of Islamophobia. Some of these issues are perceived to be more controversial than others, and are unsuprisingly met with accusations of unions being unrepresentative.
It is also important to recognize the fluidity of this argument. Merely two years ago, the fact that the UTSU was backing Idle No More was a contentious issue. A substantial number of people voted against it under the justification that the union must remain apolitical. The argument against politicization exists today, but some issues have reached a nebulous “threshold of acceptability.”
In this debate, representatives often throw out words like “representation,” “divisive,” and “ student issue,” but these words themselves are not devoid of meaning; they are extremely coded. When we talk about representation in this sense, we must ask ourselves, “who do you represent?” And, “what is a student issue?”
Too often, such a position ignores the unique experiences of the student body and whitewashes them, assuming them to be an apathetic monolith. Representatives adopt a persona of a student who is not affected adversely by the issue that is being discussed. Ergo, the issue is “political” and not representative of “students.” As a result, some students end up being more represented than others, while student union representatives comfort themselves with the thought that they are pleasing everybody.
Events that happen off our campus or in another part of the world can have adverse effects on the mental health and well being of students on our campus. The different experiences we carry affect how we react to the news that can be seemingly unconnected to our lives.
When three Muslim students were shot in their homes just off the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, I was devastated. For a day or so, I could not focus in class and was teary eyed on my commute home. Shortly after, ASSU put out a statement and I helped to organize a vigil for victims of hate and Islamophobic violence. I realized then, how it feels to know that your fellow students support you in a traumatic time, even though what is affecting you may be distant.
This is the pain that black students feel when yet another black person is murdered on the streets by an agent of the state. This is the pain indigenous students feel when yet another indigenous woman joins the list of the missing and murdered. It affects how students walk on this campus, and whether or not they can concentrate in class.
Insult is added to injury when representatives tell their students who are hurting, “sorry, but this really is not a student issue.” When a student society refused to back our vigil on the basis that it was too political and outside their mandate, what they were saying was “you do not matter” and “your experiences are not what we would consider that of an average student.”
We never release statements to “look activist”; it is always done with the knowledge that some of our students are affected by this issue and we need to stand in solidarity with them. So when representatives engage in these debates, they should be wary of voting one way or the other due to “neutrality” and “being representative.” There is no such thing — and taking such a stance is inadvertently defining some experiences as being more student like than others.
This does not mean that all students have to agree on something. Representation does not necessitate complete consensus, debate is to be encouraged and welcome. But disagree on the merits of being against that issue, not under a false pretense of being neutral, because whether you like it or not — everything is political.
Abdullah Shihipar is the president of the Arts and Science Student Union.