There’s an alarming phrase I hear at McGill from time to time, and with increasing frequency this year: “Don’t be political,” or “Politics doesn’t belong here.” It’s said openly by students supporting the anti-QPIRG Opt-Out campaign, or implied in more practiced – seemingly “neutral” – terms by some of our student Councillors.
What they’re saying, though, is: “Don’t engage in critical thought.” Because what is politics, really, but a critique of power – and who should hold that power?
Take an on-campus example: The McGill Daily and the online outlet the Prince Arthur Herald – or the left and emerging right of campus opinion pages. Though they like to bicker and mock each other, they really aren’t that different. The Daily and the Herald are both based in part on the perception that certain minority groups ought to have their voices heard, and the power structures examined that suppress them. They just disagree on the fine print of who is being victimized.
But the real threats to thought and expression at McGill aren’t the people who openly align with a political ideology or cause – the Spencer Burgers and Sarah Woolfs of the world. It’s the people who seek to suppress it under the banner of decency and “togetherness” that are the real danger. It’s a reminder to be “complacent together” in the status quo, implying that there is something unsightly about discourse. Why ask any questions at all if people are just going to get agitated? In fact, why think at all if we can be “green together?”
It’s true political discourse is an ugly beast, especially on a university campus. The discussion around Choose Life last year was a bloodbath – as was the General Assembly motion invoking a reference to Israel/Palestine: people cried, people made accusations, people flew flags and reverted to knee jerk identity politics. A lot of mistakes were made on both sides, and these examples are held up as reasons why we shouldn’t have General Assemblies or fund politically controversial groups we might not agree with. I made my own mistakes during the Choose Life debate, but I also learned a lot about how to form and express a political opinion, and when the dust finally settled, I bet that there were a lot of people who came out of it with the same realization.
An article in the New York Times Magazine this summer (“What is it about 20-Somethings?” Robin Marantz Henig, August 18, 2010) discussed the emerging theory that the early twenties are a distinct stage of development, as our brains are still changing – in particular, the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, or “the regions involved in emotional control and higher-order cognitive function.”
Applying this to political discourse, it would appear that university is the exact stage of life when we should be learning how to practically apply and expand critical thinking. It’s going to be messy – blame it on our brains or lack of emotional maturity. But killing off institutions like QPIRG and the General Assembly, or letting ourselves be bullied into complacency could mean that we lose the important developmental experiences of forming independent criticism and expression outside the classroom. This is the time to make mistakes, and learn from them.
In the end, elites will take care of elites. They’ll make sure their own stay in positions of power – at McGill and beyond. It’s in their interest that students never mobilize to express their political will, because they might learn something and apply it later to the overarching structures of power in Canada and the United States. And then there would be a real problem. You might see the man behind the curtain.
Erin Hale is a U3 Philosophy student and a former Daily editor. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.