With protests against university fee deregulation taking place in the library, classes titled Intimacy, Love and Friendship, and Pride Week starting soon, it can be easy to think we have entered an era of widespread progressivism.
Even if we don’t want to pick up sticks and join the ranks of the socialist revolution, at the University of Sydney it is fashionable to declare ourselves part of a left-wing ideological evolution. If there is dissent, it is mostly unchallenging. Right-wing students form the minority.
We have acclimated to this imbalance, but if we look beyond our sandstone walls to other tertiary institutions, it becomes clear that USyd’s on-campus ideology is a poor reflection of the vastly more conservative broader political culture.
Before coming to the University of Sydney, I was a law student at Bond University, one of Australia’s private higher education institutions. There was only one politically-affiliated club on campus: the Liberal Club. A former Nationals MP taught the Australian Politics class. The Women’s Welfare Society’s great success was hosting an arguably transphobic “gender-bender” party.
Not only was there a lack of diversity in opinion on campus, but to challenge the dominant opinion cast you as an outsider. Calling Australia Day “invasion day”, and vocalising my support for an open-door policy for asylum seekers had me branded a “left-wing hippie”.
While my ideas had me labelled a “communist” by peers at Bond, I was, much to my surprise, considered almost right-wing at USyd. I spent a few months aligned with Student Unity, who, although supporters of the Labor Party, were considered by the other factions to be right-wing.
Bond and USyd operate on very different political spectrums. The thing they have in common, however, is that they are both self-contained worlds, with unique social conventions and language. I had never heard of non-binary gender until I attended a club meeting which opened with students introducing themselves by name, degree and preferred personal pronoun. When I tried to describe learning about intersectional feminism in my gender studies class to a family member, they looked at me with confusion. These ideas rarely fall into one’s everyday terminology. And yet, at USyd, they are largely embedded in our discourse.
It is natural to believe that our campus is a microcosm of the ‘outside world’. But cast your gaze elsewhere and you will see that we are, rather, an anomaly. Just last week, students at the University of Queensland sparked a widespread debate over the existence of a gender pay gap and received death threats for selling cupcakes at different prices to men and women. Similar initiatives have been conducted on Eastern Avenue without so much as a passing comment, but perhaps the debate over UQ more accurately represents the ideological tone of the “real world”.
The University of Sydney is one of Australia’s most elite tertiary institutions. And like any elitist, it is both disconnected from, and ignorant of, reality. It assumes that the majority fall into line on its left-skewed spectrum, when in the real world, political affiliation and social convention are neither so simple nor progressive.
Most ideological battles on this campus consist of factional infighting, with progressive students dividing themselves over nuanced issues, such as whether lobbying or protesting is a better mechanism for change. In such a skewed ideological landscape, it can be easy to forget who the real opponent is.
The danger with receiving a political education in an ideological bubble such as USyd, is that it does very little to prepare progressives for interacting with, and existing within, a far more diverse reality. After years of factions dividing themselves like fractions, various strands of the ‘left’ will need to realise they have to band together to stand against a rising majority: conservatism. All those years of USyd’s political juggernauts casting the ‘right’ into their stupol shadow may have been to their detriment; in the real world of discourse, one will not only have to engage, but persuade and negotiate with those calling from beyond the other side of the fence.
The lengths of our degrees limit our days on campus. Eventually, we will have to emerge, graduation cap in hand, and see the brave new world for what it is: diverse in opinion, largely inconsiderate of identity politics, and on the cusp of electing Donald Trump into the American presidency. Sure, the progressives may still hold on to the political views they formed at university and practice their taught social and verbal conventions. However, many will have to learn how to walk and talk in a far more challenging political culture. They will realise that those red flags, far from being tools of liberation, were in fact blindfolds.