Student Politics, Why Are We Still Here?

Adam Chalmers and Angelus Morningstar know what’s coming.

Adam Chalmers and Angelus Morningstar know what’s coming.

Muzafer Sherrif, co-founder of modern social psychology, wanted to find out what makes people develop irrational hatred of each other. He ran a study called the Robber’s Cave Experiment, in which he got 22 kids on summer camp and divided them into two groups on different halves of the camp. Over the course of a month, he planned to introduce complications and tensions to try to foment conflict between the groups. He needn’t have bothered, because it turns out just dividing people into groups makes them hate each other.

As soon as each group realised there was a second group on the camp, hatred blossomed. The groups made up names for themselves (Eagles and Ratters), invented nasty stories about the other group and took every opportunity to fight with the other group. Humans are wired to form “tribes” with people close to them, and to irrationally hate any other tribe that gets near. This tribalism manifests itself in summer camps, in feuds between wrestlers and football teams, in prejudice, and in teams of angry people with colourful shirts pushing each other down stairs.

If that last example didn’t sound familiar, prepare yourself. Usyd is about to hold its biannual Robber’s Cave Recreation
Gala—also known as student elections. Eastern Avenue and Cadigal Green walkway are about to transform into a bitterly contested war ground. Student elections showcase some of the finest and nastiest electoral strategies you can name. Unfortunately, student politicians are notorious for using a range of underhanded tactics to undermine their opposition.

While they usually hide behind bright colours, puns and recycled ticket names, most candidates have some political party or movement backing them. When you see two campaigners in clashing colours yell at each other, you’re witnessing more than just student drama. You’re witnessing partisan tribalism, no different to the kind on Question Time or Q&A.

When campaigners spend all day handing out flyers, harassing strangers on Eastern Avenue and being pressured by their factional overlord, they only become more attached to their tribalist us-versus-them perspective. Campaign managers and political seniors encourage this because it makes campaigners more effective. You don’t want to let Those Awful People who did That Terrible Thing win, do you? Students begin to hate their opponents, which leads to shouting matches, pushing, vandalism, character assassination and far worse. This, of course, only strengthens the tribal hatred of That Other Team and creates a vicious cycle that continues until everyone’s former friendships are ruined, or the campaign ends.

Rival campaigners don’t hate each other for political reasons. They hate each other because we’re hardwired for it. This, incidentally, explains why all three socialist clubs on campus hate each other and none of them can explain why.

But tribalism takes its toll. Friendships are destroyed. Classes failed. Mental health can be ruined. And ultimately, the electorate suffers for it, because when campaigns are powered by self-righteousness and emotion, rational discourse withers away.

So this election season, we’re begging you: remember your opponents are people too, and don’t give in to the hatred.