If you care just a bit about what’s going on around campus and you normally read College’s newspapers, you would easily have noticed that one of the most discussed topics throughout the previous semester was the abortion debate. But interestingly enough, this debate was not really about abortion per se. We rarely heard pro-life students arguing why abortion was bad for women personally or for society as a whole. And we seldom read pro-choice students explaining their philosophical argument for a woman’s right to have an abortion. This time, it was all about the atmosphere and tone surrounding the debate itself. And what made it even more interesting was the fact that people from both sides of the argument seemed to be pointing to a common consensus, leading to a bigger and more important debate in Trinity.
I am talking about the intolerance (sometimes hostile) which is starting to permeate discourse around campus, and which in turn is leading to the end of genuine debate in our dear university. I’m going to suggest a couple of resolutions that the SU and the CSC might consider implementing if they want to prevent Trinity from becoming an illiberal university, rather than a truly liberal one where every point of view may be welcomed.
Right to (not) join a union?
“like every other union, it should allow its members to leave whenever it pleases them.”
To begin with, it is important for every College institution to have an awareness of the various key democratic principles which are essential for a free and liberal society to flourish. And by this I am mainly referring to the right of association, and subsequently, the right of dissociation. For instance, the SU has to stop being something which it is not. It is not a purely student government. It is a union. And like every other union, it should allow its members to leave whenever it pleases them. Here in Ireland, when you become a teacher, you don’t instantly become a member of the Teachers’ Union. Similarly, you don’t automatically join the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation when you become a nurse, and you don’t get a membership of the Prison Officers Association when you land a job at Mountjoy Prison.
But in Trinity, things are different, for whatever reason. Once you are registered for the year, you automatically become a member of the Students’ Union. Maybe what happens is that the SU does this as a favour to the students by saving them the hassle of registering later on. In that case, that’s totally fine, and a large number of students would be grateful for that. But they have to acknowledge and respect the freedom of students who just don’t want to participate or be part of this union. And so the least they could do in order to show that respect is to facilitate an exit door for such students to leave and get their membership money back.
And how does this make the debate situation any better, you might say? Well, first of all, you would be encouraging a culture of individual freedom and personal thought. Because by allowing students to leave, you are basically defending the idea of taking personal decisions that could go against the mainstream or traditional point of view. People shouldn’t feel intimidated for wanting to make uncommon choices or think differently than the rest. And secondly, we would be avoiding scenarios like the current one in which more than three quarters of the entire student body could feel compromised when they go into College, or throughout their entire degree, because they never got a chance to vote in a particular referendum that took place four or five years ago.
“A truly liberal atmosphere in Trinity can only exist if the very institutions that compose it are genuinely democratic and representative of all.”
The freedom to associate with a group of people is so compromised when trying to set up a society that one might easily think that it doesn’t exist. Let’s say you want to set up a society for pottery, for people who love making and have an appreciation for pottery. The first thing you need is to get the signatures of more than 250 students that would approve the existence of your society. Fair enough.
But it is at the next step where things start to get complicated. You have to present your society to the CSC’s General Council, and in the end, they are the ones who decide whether you have a right to be a society or not. It doesn’t matter if you have 250 committed students who are willing to be members of that society or have even given you the money for membership. You don’t get to exist if the council does not approve. But hold on a second – you might say that this is the right thing to do because the CSC gives funding to every society on campus, and so a “selection process” has to exist because they wouldn’t be able to fund every “silly” society that is proposed to them. But that’s precisely the problem which I am suggesting they solve. They have to realise that not all students are looking for funding or some sort of subsidising from them.
A council made up of fifteen or whatever number of students with certain political views should not be the ones dictating whether you have the right to associate or not. With the best of intentions, they might as well study the case to see if your society would have a high enough success or popularity rate and decide to make you eligible for funding. But in any case, if someone wants to start a Pro-Choice Society, another debating society, a bird watching society, or a Pro-Life society, and provided they don’t need the CSC’s funding and they have the people willing to become members, who are they to tell them they can’t do it?
A truly liberal atmosphere in Trinity can only exist if the very institutions that compose it are genuinely democratic and representative of all. At the end of the day, we should all aspire to have a university in which a student’s personal decisions and beliefs are really tolerated – and even more, respected. That’s a liberality worth fighting for.