Commentary | Democracy wars

The myth of the “engaged student”

There seems to be an idea going around that general assemblies (GAs) are some sort of ideal forum where ideas are exchanged, discussed, weighed, and finally put to a vote by a bright-eyed and newly-informed roomful of excited students eager to steer their student union into new waters where they can make a real change in the world. Mona Luxion’s October 15 column, “One click, one vote” (Commentary, page 8) does a good job of getting this idea across. If this is actually how the GAs work, I think I was in the wrong room on the day of the SSMU GA, where a room of tired and jaded students quickly lost quorum and ended the night squabbling over motions that would have a vanishingly small effect on their lives, no matter which way the vote went.

The fact is, GAs are, and have always been, the game of small lobbying groups, who appear with such depressing regularity that one can almost recognize their members on sight. GAs are the arenas for political punch-ups in the name of whatever happens to be the latest banner cause – the student strike, Israel/Palestine, corporate investment, et cetera. The name of the game is to get as many of your like-minded friends out so you can push your agenda over the unlucky sops that couldn’t gather enough of their like-minded friends, trading barbs all the way, and then go home with a shiny new mandate to hang over the mantelpiece, be it from SSMU, a faculty, or a department. Certainly amendments can be introduced, but if the last SSMU GA was any indication, such actions are little more than political shell games, with opponents trying to “defang” the motion or supporters trying to intensify it.

This is not a left-wing issue or a right-wing issue; it stems almost entirely from the fact that nobody goes into a GA without an issue that personally affects them, and usually that issue is raised in the form of a motion that they have an interest in forcing through. Witness the fact that the highest rate of participation for a GA in recent memory – during the AUS strike vote –  happened only when a motion was raised that would affect most students equally, with the more than 1,000 in attendance evaporating as soon as the issue had been decided.

Yet still people defend the myth of the “engaged student,” that fleeting beast that somehow finds time between its fifteen credits of coursework to go out with no preconceptions and spend hours listening to “debate” (which usually consists of propagandistic screeds anyway) so that it can make an “informed decision” and thus be grouped into the appropriate camp for the subsequent mud-slinging (“You damn hipster commie!” “You ****ing fascist!”). This student does not exist. Given the choice, most McGill students would rather stay in the library for a few more precious hours of studying, letting the assorted factions squabble in the GAs over their pet issues. Yet often they find themselves punished for these priorities by the resulting mandates from these political cage fights, forced behind a policy that may even be directly harmful to them. Such is the need for online ratification. Until a way is found to make GAs genuinely open fora rather than “democracy wars” between lobby groups, online ratification is the only way to ensure that SSMU serves the interests of the students, rather than the other way around.

Harmon Moon is a U3 History student. He can be reached at

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