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Defending the Political Culture of St Andrews

Us vs them?

It can be in no doubt that political shockwaves of recent events have well and truly reverberated around the world and even a place which calls itself the bubble is no exception. As such, perhaps it is no wonder that this has given us time to do some introspection on our own political culture. Articles on our very own Stand have criticised our “political apathy and rallied students to Stand United against potentially worrying developments both at home and abroad.

Indeed, it is easy to criticise the seemingly detached nature of St Andrews. It’s small and remote. Some have even argued that we “exist outside modern civilisation.” It’s relatively safe. And yes, I don’t think many of us can deny it, it’s privileged. Is it any wonder then that we are accused of ‘pervasive apathy’ or that we ought to “re-enter the reality of the world“?

However, I do not believe that this portrayal does justice to either the diversity of our student body or the political culture in which we operate. In a world where it is often all-too easy to criticise the clear leftist bias within universities, St Andrews has done what many have not – created a truly inclusive environment for all political persuasions.

Coming here, I never thought I’d encounter the range of people I’ve met – communists and royalists, feminists and anarchists, conservatives and progressives – and that’s just my friendship group alone! In an institution often criticised for a lack of visible diversity, diversity of thought is in our DNA. It runs into our studies, our protests, our conversations over dinner. What’s more, St Andrews provides us with the perfect surroundings in which to think for ourselves, have dialogue with others and to grow.

This was exemplified earlier this year when the Republicans Overseas and the Socialist Society met for a drink in the cellar of Aikmans. There was no violence like the sight we have seen at UC Berkeley, no fires, no brawls. Just “good natured and ultimately constructive debate.” And booze. How very St Andrean.

That’s not so say that all protests are counter-productive. Students have every right to protest and make their voices heard. Protests can be a force for good, a force for the change we want to see in the world. But, I fear that in all our passion and conviction, we risk losing the very thing that makes our political culture what it is – our ability to have a discussion. We have already seen how protests can alienate even those individuals taking part simply by underestimating the diversity of values and beliefs in our student body. This “us vs them” dichotomy can not only be alienating, but it not an accurate representation of the university or the world at large.

It has been said that we have to stand up due to the needs of “minorities,” “the oppressed,” and “the young.” This wrongly assumes an interchangeability of these groups, that we can somehow be put in a homogenous clump of like-minded souls. However, what worries me more is the idea that “we’ve taken on a common enemy” – a dark and faceless opposition which must be fought at every turn.

This enforced political dichotomy, an ‘us vs them’ mentality, is a division which overlooks the range of complexities in people’s beliefs and ideas, complexities which I’ve experienced time and time again in my time here. If we prioritise potentially alienating protests over meaningful discourse – the type we have already seen in the cellar of Aikmans – then we lose a major component of what makes St Andrews special: our inclusivity and our respect for intellectual diversity.

To those who say that we need to be more politically engaged, I agree. To those with the passion and conviction to stand up for what they believe in, I support you. But we mustn’t homogenise diverse groups of people, portray those we disagree with as “enemies” or alienate those with different views from our own. If we do, “re-entering the reality of the world” – a world of different beliefs, values and opinions – may be more difficult than we think. 

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