Feb 6, 2012

Student Democracy: The agency of the few

Abraham Moussako

The SSMU General Assembly last week was the latest installment of an institution at McGill showcasing both the theoretical promise of direct democracy and the reality of its own illegitimacy. The theoretical promise comes from the reasonable idea that the student body of a university should have a say in how the university is run. This runs head on into the reality of direct democracy at McGill, which is that it is highly unrepresentative of the student body at large. While I had taken a passing interest in watching how our student government works, seeing that the assembly was debating a painting of Karl Marx—satirically or not—was what motivated me to actually attend.

What I first found striking about the Assembly was its similarity to a Model UN conference. Same placards, same stilted rules of debate, and the same generally impatient, almost restless buzz among some of the less committed attendees. The resolution under debate at the time was an amazingly dry one regarding the “Selection of the Financial Auditor.” There was not a particularly spirited debate on the idea, and it passed. The following resolution, regarding the formation of a student run café, was just as bland and inoffensive. 

The resolutions then began to hint at the radical agenda at hand. The resolution on frosh reform decried the current iteration as “heteronormative,” but was vague in terms of actual actions. In response to a question I posed, it was noted that the motion would simply act as a form of public approval over talks to reform frosh the SSMU was already having internally. There was a bit of a dust-up as one attendee fought to have included a redundant amendment that would codify that the event would be in accordance with the SSMU’s equity policy. As with some of the more passionate attendees to the Assembly, she spoke as if these words were all that would keep frosh from descending to a nest of homophobic misogyny. On that subject, someone else suggested adding rather dramatically-termed “anti-oppression” rape culture workshops to the resolution. 

Midway through the debate on frosh reform, the assembly mercifully lost quorum and became a “consultative body,” presumably meaning that the printed minutes of the meeting were now worth slightly less than a roll of sanitary paper. The debate on “negative corporate influence on campus” seemed to be tailor-made for the members of the “protest class” in attendance. A spirited back and forth ensued, as some argued that McGill should free itself from the yoke of purportedly corrupting corporate influence, while others pointed out the financial difficulty of reducing corporate partnerships. But these are the same voices that call for frozen tuition fees and higher wages for striking faculty. The response, that the university should “reevaluate its administrative priorities,” was the sort of line that drew passionate applause from quarters of the audience—and completely absolved the speaker from engaging with the argument.

Later, an attendee ludicrously suggested the assembly was in violation of anti-sexism policies because only men had spoken. The suggestion was that the two women who at the time were in line for the microphone should be moved to the front; presumably the fact that they had stood up later than the others was a sign of an “oppressive power structure.”

Debate drifted on to the consideration of a “student strike ‘solidarity’ fund.” The proposed fund, to be paid out of general SSMU funds, was yet another symbol of the apparatus—and in this case, the money—of the majority of students appropriated to support the agenda of the vocal few. The last serious resolution of the night was a move to condemn the federal crime bill, C-10. My own skepticism on the bill aside, the student union of McGill running a public advocacy campaign against it would be just about as effective as anything the government of Mauritius has to say on the U.S. elections. The Harper government does not exactly court—or care about—the approval of left-wing college students.

After a debate on a satirical resolution on chess sets for Gerts, the motion on a Karl Marx painting was put forth. Some of the more rational students in attendance half-jokingly attempted to amend the resolution to require an equally-sized painting of Adam Smith. The amendment was declared “not topical,” and the resolution on the whole proceeded to a vote. The painting was eventually rejected by the assembly. A small and symbolic victory in an assembly that had been reduced to a small and symbolic body hours ago, but a victory for reason nonetheless.  

What to do to fix the structure of student government is a topic for another column. What I can say here is that any structural reform of campus politics would do well to be accompanied by an attitude adjustment.

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