There are, as ever, many confusions to be found in student politics. The emerging confusion, however, is best embodied by the self-interested individual: the person who waves the flag for political virtue, but whose every action suggests that they are concerned only for their own good, with little more than contempt for the wider political process.
Last week, Trinity News published a piece criticising the decision made by People Before Profit (PBP) members to cut down signs advertising an event centred around the first-hand stories of rape victims with “pro-life” views. Some of the response to this article, and to the event itself, represent a particularly damaging trend that has taken hold of student politics, and indeed wider political engagement.
This is not, as the Burkean Journal have argued, the daily erosion of free speech. It is a romantic idea that in these exceedingly small events, and the battles that spring up around them, some greater tussle between libertarian and totalitarian forces is being played out.
That would be an altogether grand reading of any situation where a fatuous action is met with reasoned and sustained consensus. But it is the romance and the grandeur with which so many student politicians do engage in these events that betrays the immediate problem faced by the academic community.
That problem might be called celebrity culture, but this term distracts from the phenomenon that makes celebrity culture possible: the walking, talking egos. More often than not, these are individuals who become narcissistic in the pursuit of status or acclaim which they feel entitled to. And they are individuals: let there be no doubt that this is how they view themselves, whatever they advertise their political opinions to be.
That much has been made clear by the PBP debacle, with two students — or “comrades” — taking up a pair of scissors, stripping 30 or so posters from lamp-posts (making the lights enlightened again, presumably) and advertising it on the society’s Facebook page. While the two individuals, Conor Reddy and Sean Egan, have since claimed that this was not a PBP event but private activism, it has been noted how flimsy this distinction is considering Egan and Reddy’s extensive association with Trinity PBP, particularly on its social media.
Indeed, a quick scroll down the page itself confirms that, far from being a pluralist socialist scene, PBP’s social media is more akin to a sort of improvisational visual blog for Egan and Reddy, with very few other faces to be seen in its amateur media, if at all.
But this unhelpful self-promotion is by no means confined to PBP, no matter how gratifying that would be for both its participants and opponents. Their actions are merely symptomatic of a culture in which morals are so closely allied with personal expression that the boundaries between opinions and people have become blurred. It’s one thing if people are seen as inseparable from their political identities, but if people with big egos see their views as in some way under attack, politics becomes a mean, defensive, self-interested affair.
This is most apparent in the familiar, petty Facebook comments that spring up under most articles critical of an action or idea. As a general rule, grandstanders will respond by posting great screeds written with such self-regard that they make the abstract ideas they’re talking about seem factual. Of course, all philosophy is heavily disputed — anyone suggesting otherwise is an amateur.
These sententious types are something of a plague as far as online conversation goes, but they are at least easy to identify. They write with the language of fourteen-year-olds and squat dictators, and can never resist ending one of their speeches with some kind of foolishly Victorian declaration.
But the privileging of ego is not just something reserved for online squabbles. Identity politics is so rampant that student debates are frequently little more than anecdotal exchanges of personal experience (not unlike the event advertised on the terminated posters) in a way that appeals to ideas of self-expression, self-assurance, self-acceptance, and almost every other self-word there is. As far as debates that aren’t in real-time go, a trend in virtue signalling can be seen across student news media, where individuals write to exhibit morality rather than come to terms with its complexity.
In this cultural context, it doesn’t seem coincidental that it has become fashionable, and political, to wear a jumper that expresses, in the most literal black-and-white terms: “REPEAL”. I’m sure this is the point of the design — that this is not a grey issue — but it seems little short of satire that this fabrication could look to reflect any view that isn’t simplistic or entrenched.
In this expression of opinion, morals are not viewed as tricky and abstract, but, like jumpers, objects to be owned or disowned by each of us.
The realities faced by many students in their political lives will therefore involve engaging with egos, grand claims, and uncreative activism. The temptation would be to say that, while these phenomena are commonplace, they can still be circumnavigated and questioned.
As long as there are prominent student politicians to alter the narrative, ideas will be debated properly and actions carried out unselfishly. But the problem with self-obsession is that, far from being a bottom-of-the-barrel characteristic, it has an uncanny way of rising to the top.
Here we find anti-abortion UCDSU President Katie Ascough, who has captured the attention of national media with her decision to redact information on abortion from UCDSU’s “Winging It” student advice booklet on the specious grounds of “legal advice”. As has been reported extensively, the nub of the advice comprised a potential €1,900 fine, the avoidance of which would cost the students’ union around €8,000 in reprinting costs.
Practical considerations aside, Ascough ploughed on, and reprinted the booklet in redacted form. Every sabbatical officer who expressed reservations with her decision was overruled by executive decree. No statement was issued beyond the one in which Ascough detailed the legal argument.
At the time of writing, and with an impeachment referendum looming, Ascough remains silent. Perhaps she doesn’t want to implicate herself further, or perhaps she felt the original statement to be sufficiently explanatory, though this seems unlikely considering its reception.
More probable is the theory that Ascough, like many prominent figures on the student political scene, is driven more by self-assurance and -reassurance than public opinion, stabilised by a self-belief cultivated through listening to the “right people” and developing unimpeachable morals about the “right things”.
Naturally, Ascough’s actions were not welcomed by her presidential counterpart, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union President Kevin Keane, in a critical (and self-consciously rhetorical) op-ed published by Trinity News. As a students’ union leader, it would be of urgent importance to lay out to Ascough how deleterious her actions could be to those in need of abortion information.
And so, in his peroration, Keane invoked that subject which can always be called upon as an emotive protagonist in nuanced national news stories: himself.
“I don’t want to live in an Ireland where we criminalise people for sharing important information with those who need it,” he fulminates. “I don’t want to live in an Ireland where simply sharing the link to a website is illegal. I certainly don’t want to live in an Ireland where we allow this situation to continue unchecked.”
In this self-centred lapse, there is more to be found than a potential cheap shot — there is an explanation. Before this point, Keane’s most notable engagement in student politics came in April when, as President-elect, he refused to vote in favour of a motion proposed by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) mandating TCDSU to lobby for a non-violent boycott of Israel, choosing instead to speak against it.
At the time, he justified diverting attention away from a boycott of Israel because the SU should “affect the community we have right here”. It seems unlikely that by that word “community” Keane meant to express anything internationalist or global, which would otherwise justify an interest in political happenings elsewhere; instead, community for Keane seems to be something graspable and parochial.
The litany of contradictions and hypocrisies which characterised this period for Keane are not worth recalling to simply undermine every one of his subsequent efforts in student politics, nor to deny his sincerity in speaking about the eighth amendment. The point is that what links Keane’s paragraph above with his actions in Spring is an overwhelming concern for things which are close to home and, by extension, wherever he is.
Far from looking to call anybody a narcissist, which would be giving the sort of rigidity to their identities and egos that they seek to inflict on moral debate and action, the examples given here should be viewed as expressly concerned with behaviour, not personality. While the distinction is frequently blurry, with narcissistic tendencies informing actions and creating a perception of personality, it is nevertheless important to try and tease out.
To question the seemingly self-interested is not to denigrate them or their views by default, but to question the desirability of one voice privileging itself over others. This is not because all voices will always have something to say, but because voices which think they always have something to say tend to be the most insufferable, nauseating whines.