The National Post should not be leading a discussion on student democracy
On April 26, The Varsity reported that the 2013-14 UTSU board of directors would send a proposal to the 2014 Annual General Meeting for a new board structure that eliminates directors for colleges and faculties, replacing them with a third Arts and Science at-Large Director and Professional Faculty at-Large directors. The proposal also introduces seats for marginalized groups including women, LGBT students, and racialized students.
On May 7, however, this story was reported again in a rather snarky National Post Op-Ed by Robyn Urback. That article has since gone viral on my Facebook feed.
While reflecting on that article I learned my first lesson as a UTSU director: the speed with which political discourse rises and falls on the internet is far greater than the speed at which our board can meet.
In theory, online student-political discussion has the potential to be a great thing. Politics should not be constrained to board meetings and elections.
The flip side of that argument, however, is that the speed with which one can write on the internet leads ideas to become viral before people can fully appreciate their context. The online sphere also seems to encourage polarized rhetoric, and subsequently, the development of an us vs. them mentality.
The problem with this framework is that, in this case, it does not represent the complexity of the debate over UTSU board reform. One can, for instance, support the addition of directors for marginalized groups without calling for the elimination of college directors.
One can also be critical of the specifics of the reform proposal, without being against it in spirit. One of the more interesting critiques of the proposed reform that I saw, focuses on the fact that all students can vote for most of the board positions, therefore allowing majorities who are out of touch with the interests of certain marginalized groups to determine who holds these groups’ directorial seats. Criticizing the board reform plan for this reason is fundamentally different from criticizing it because you view representing marginalized groups as “reverse discrimination.”
On Facebook and The Varsity’s comments threads, however, I often sense that the UTSU’s veteran critics march under one banner. This time it’s the banner of Robyn Urback. When I read Urback’s article I was instantly put off by her condescending tone. She negatively compares the UTSU to so-called “grown up governments” and conveniently uses a passionate, but substanceless quotation from former UTSU President Munib Sajjad, making it seem as if little thought was put into UTSU’s board reform.
Urback’s style in this article should come as no surprise. When I looked up further articles of hers I found she has previously dismissed Occupy activists as using “Tantrum tactics”, and wrote off an entire University of Ottawa anti-Men’s Rights’ Activists’ protest as “juvenile.” Urback’s journalistic record is clearly that of a conservative, and an arrogant one at that.
This should come as no surprise considering that Urback writes stories on low-key student political events for a national newspaper. Criticisms of UTSU bylaws and policy usually don’t interest anyone but U of T students. So why did Urback write on this topic? Presumably, it’s because her ideology gives her reason to want to belittle student-activist organizations when given the chance.
In addition to being condescending, Urback’s article is reactionary and sensationalist. She appropriates the complexity of peoples’ intersectional struggles to argue that “race ethnicity or sexual preference” are “superficial characteristics.” She overplays the analogy between geographical representation in city council and divisional representation in the UTSU, and claims that a council organized around identity would not be able to respond to basic local issues (citing the example of “a dangerous sinkhole”). Urback even goes so far as to compare this proposed empowerment of marginalized groups with segregation.
While people who share Urback’s articles do not necessarily share all of her views, they are maintaining a problematic union between those who want to undermine the UTSU for ideological reasons, and those who simply disagree with the set up of some of its structures.
Perhaps I can best explain my qualm through metaphor. In a Peanuts episode entitled “You’re Not Elected Charlie Brown”, Linus runs for school president and goes on to give a speech about his imaginary hero, the Great Pumpkin. At this point Linus’ enemies laugh and his supporters groan.
I would like to see UTSU politics develop to the point where the laughers and the groaners are as distinct as they are in the aforementioned Peanuts episode. Those who groan because they feel the UTSU’s policy choices are undermining its ability to serve as an effective activist organization should not align and share propaganda with those who laugh, hoping the UTSU and its progressive campaigns will crumble.
As a director myself, I don’t think the UTSU has to choose between representing marginalized peoples on its board and trying to win over its more moderate critics. I hope others can reach a similar conclusion so that we can drop the banner of Robyn Urback and raise the Great Pumpkin’s banner of social justice.
Zach Morgenstern was elected as an independent to be one of the UTSU directors for Victoria College in 2014-15. He is also an op-ed writer and comment editor for the newspaper. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the rest of the editorial team. The newspaper is open to publishing ideas from a vast array of perspectives.