This morning I was walking to uni from Redfern station and a person with a campaign t-shirt approached a student walking in front of me and fell into step beside her. At first I assumed they were friends, such was the casual purpose with which the first girl had approached the second. But I soon realised that the campaigner had started up on her campaign spiel and the student was looking incredibly uncomfortable. She didn’t really have much option but to listen – a fact which the campaigner clearly knew and exploited. For one, the campaigner wasn’t pausing for breath, and even if she had, she was relying on the fact that the student would not want to seem rude by asking her to stop or, you know, go away.
This is not an isolated incident. During the past couple of weeks I’ve seen people in brightly coloured shirts sit down with people to interrupt their lunch, accost vague acquaintances on their way to class, and corner strangers while they’re trying to study. Now, if you ask me, this type of harassment and intimidation doesn’t sit well with democratic notions of free and fair elections. But that’s for someone else to explore. Today I want to talk about my concern that these practices perpetuate a disregard for the autonomy and agency of other people.
In the scenario discussed above the campaigner intentionally chose a ‘target’ who was unlikely to voice any objections to the harassment. The student was a young woman and was walking alone. People in our society, particularly women, often feel like they cannot say ‘no’ to things that they do not want or enjoy for fear their ‘no’ will be ignored, that they will be harassed until they change their mind or that they will seem ‘rude’ or like they’re ‘making a scene’. The campaigner knew that it was likely that the student would feel too uncomfortable to say anything and she exploited this knowledge.
As an alternative to this style of campaigning I would like to propose a campus politics that respects the autonomy of students and acknowledges consent as a necessary component of freedom. We know where you are (all the absurdly bright colours are hard to miss) and we’ll come to you if and when we want information.
But if you do feel the need to approach us please do so without the intention of making us feel isolated and unsafe. The best way of doing this would be by giving us a real option as to whether or not we want to engage, by giving a genuine opportunity to say ‘no’. For example: “Hi, I’m Amy and I’m running for SRC. I was wondering if you’re in a rush or whether you’d like to hear about some of my campaign policies.” By providing two options the other person gets
to actually chose whether or not they want to hear about what I have to say.
Coercion, discomfort and harassment are not a good basis for any respectable politics. You all lament that students on campus are disengaged from the political process. I suggest that if you respect us enough to engage on our own terms then we just might do so.