Many students become involved in student politics because they’re interested in changing some aspect of the system. Whether it’s making their chosen organization more transparent, creating a fairer governance structure, or fighting to lower tuition, they are all engaged with the process of change.
Yet, one aspect of the student political system remains ever-present: harassment. Certainly some grief is to be expected — a public position is sure to garner public attention, some of which will be negative. In the life of a student politician, however, the line between the personal and the professional criticism becomes blurred.
Specifically, student politicians’ lives are often treated as public property. However, how someone chose to spend their holidays, or what kind of summer job they got, is rarely fair or relevant criticism.
The ability to hold our student leaders to account is one of the most important elements of our democratic system. However, this should not extend to the personal.. The relentless and ruthless criticisms of student leaders can — and often does — lead to anxiety and emotional breakdowns.
Often, those who suffer the most are women, people of colour, and openly LGBTQ+ students. Marginalized communities already face significant barriers to involvement, and it is no coincidence that these groups face often face the most criticism on campus.
Many of these attacks are perpetuated online, which gives those responsible a false sense of bravado. Many of us have been guilty at one time or another of saying something on the Internet we likely wouldn’t have in person.
To this end, anonymous blogs, Twitter accounts, and Reddit throwaways, aggravate the problem. Such anonymity guarantees the freedom and privacy to be able to speak freely, which is vitally important, as not all students are comfortable giving feedback publicly.
Some people, however, use this anonymity as an opportunity to say slanderous or threatening things. Worse, some of the worst cases appear to be from student leaders themselves. The “subtweet”, or “subtweet statuses”, are subtle and veiled ways of targeting one’s political opponents. While there is no easy solution to maintaining online privacy and freedom while also preventing hostile public spaces, these aggressive posts are often from other student politicians who ought to know better.
Harassment acts as a barrier to involvement; student politicians often leave their offices mentally and emotionally exhausted, despite the experience being otherwise rewarding. Our student community suffers when we lose these voices. Even worse is that our behavior pushes students away from the important services and campaigns that our unions and student societies run. We are in and of ourselves a barrier to engagement and involvement.
Limited time mandates mean that the clock is always ticking. We must get past our past mud-slinging habits and instead we move towards building campus unity. If we all share one common thread of intent, it is a desire to leave the U of T community better than we found it.
We have eight months ahead. Are you going to stand by a system of harassment, or are you going to help change the rules?
Natalie Petra is a University College student studying Public Policy, Ethics, Society & Law, and Equity Studies. She currently serves as an executive on the Arts and Science Students’ Union.