I suspect the conflict over the changing of Dublin University Gender Equality Society’s (DUGES) official name to DU Feminist Society (FemSoc) is confusing to many new Trinity students. The Central Societies Committee (CSC) holds that it does not wish to allow the formation of political societies not affiliated with a political party – as though both societies specifically and student life more broadly were not already saturated with political identification, conflict, and divisiveness.
Since the very first day many new Trinity students arrived in Dublin this year, it has been made clear to them that the environment in which they live is now explicitly political. Society life, student marches, and Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) events involve constant political jostling. You cannot walk through campus without seeing a Repeal jumper. It is rare to find someone without an opinion on Katie Ascough.
And at the Warden’s address to students living in Trinity Hall, TCDSU President Kevin Keane stood up and announced to every young person who had been just placed into one of the most intense periods of change in their life, that he was there to empower them to repeal the Eighth Amendment to this country’s constitution. It is impossible to escape politics in Trinity.
It is likely that at least a few of the students who sat listening to Keane felt less empowered and more helpless to do anything but nod. Others still might have seen a glimpse of a college life where they were forced to pick sides on issues they knew very little about. Yet more may have wondered if they would be alone in expressing a sense of frustration or isolation in the face of this pressure.
It may come as a surprise to the more experienced political activists of this college that people do not emerge from secondary school with fully formed opinions on issues as broad-ranging as abortion, the correct way to finance universities, or intersectional feminism.
These students are faced with an SU and a broader set of campus societies which have very definite opinions on each of these issues. Worse still, what happens when someone has formed an opinion on these issues but it is the wrong one? Many students from international and rural backgrounds are faced with a very simple choice. Adopt these opinions, and get to play a meaningful part in campus life, or fail to and find yourself to be a black sheep constantly on guard.
I am certain that those who campaign around these tentpole issues of student politics do not intentionally seek to create this effect. No doubt they see themselves as educators, opening the doors to debate and discussion. But the approach used by the SU and others is more about mounting social pressure than meaningful discussion.
Keane did not seek to convince anyone listening to him that the Eighth Amendment was an unacceptable piece of legislation or that women deserved complete autonomy over their bodies. Rather, he assumed that we already believed in his cause.
Whether he knows it or not, he has considerable power over what is considered acceptable for students to believe as they begin their new lives at Trinity. This gives him a worrying amount of control. It is a great responsibility indeed.
Of course, attempts have been made to be open and create dialogue. Too often however, these are hamstrung and condescending. “Empowerment Week” saw events like Repeal 101 and an anonymous repeal questions box. These attempts, however, imply that while you may have questions, there is a right answer. Too much dissension and too many questions are neither welcome nor expected.
None of this is unique to the SU, and the particular set of progressive opinions they embrace. I am certain that you could involve yourself in an equally toxic set of pro-life communities where social pressure is leveraged in a similar way. That does not mean that it is right.
When students across the country and indeed the world chose to come to Trinity, it is unlikely they knew that this was the social community which they would be entering into. And it is unfair, in light of that, that the SU should conduct themselves in this way.
The questions dominating Irish political life in 2017 are immensely complicated. There is no shame in not having a developed opinion on issues where no consensus exists even amongst experts, as is the case in the instance of student fees. In fact, I would contend that this is probably the reasonable position.
Yet the nature of student life in Trinity is such that you are not only expected to have an opinion on each of these issues, but to become an activist in their favour. The question remains – why should we seek to empower before we educate?
The cynical answer is that those who campaign on issues of national politics in Trinity do not really care about convincing or educating students. If social pressure and expectation means that more people will attend their march then they have won. If it means that students vote in the way they wish, then they have won.
But to act as though any of this is universally in the interest of Trinity students is disingenuous. By weaving a single set of political positions into the fabric of student life, we affect how social structures form and who is included in them.
Most people will simply comply with these expectations. Among them, however, there are people whose families and friends back home think in a completely different way. There are people who have doubts and fears about fitting into college life at all. And there are people who are confused about what they are meant to believe, and why that can so often be more important than who they are.
I have no doubt that this method of controlling student politics is effective. I wonder if it is worth it.