Opinion //

In defence of stupol: Why elections are underrated

Student politicians might be cringe, but it’s good that they exist.

Illustration: Ellie Stephenson

I have written quite a lot of articles about student elections. A number of them begin similarly: I throw out a jokey line about how silly the whole spectacle is, how hordes of campaigners will descend on Eastern Avenue, how the hacks will be flexing their campaign muscle, and so on. The sentence acts as something of a plea to my reader. “I know, I know, it’s stupid. I’m sorry. But can we please just talk about stupol for a second,” it says.

For someone who has been extensively (detractors might say obsessively) involved in stupol since first year, this is a weird move. I’m not lying — I do think student politics is strange and often silly, even farcical. But nevertheless, I find stupol news, history, machinations, dramas, controversies and plotlines endlessly fascinating.

Before I launch my full defence, first, two disclaimers. 

One, I am not very good at stupol. A truly dreadful on-the-ground campaigner — wracked with the twin challenges of introversion and passivity — I have an electoral record best described as motley. I am dispositionally ill-suited to conducting walk-and-talks and I offer a sincere apology if you have ever been at the receiving end of the stammering info dumps that characterise my campaigning. 

Two, I have a fairly personal investment in the activity. I met my boyfriend-of-four-years on the SRC campaign trail in my first year (our first kiss was the upside of a fairly dour campaign afterparty—the faction having lost the election). It would be unusually difficult for me to claim stupol as a net loss to my life.

Nevertheless, my claims are simple: a world in which student politics exists is preferable to a world in which it doesn’t. More people should engage with stupol—voting and running in elections.

The reason I find most compelling is that student politics adds something intangible but essential to student life. The spectacle of stupol should not be regretted: every scandal and spat gets subsumed into a rich and comedic campus history. Stupol lore, along with being entertaining, contributes to a sense of identity on campus. 

We live in a context where the campus as a social phenomenon is being undermined. A grim combination of social atomisation, economic insecurity and the corporatisation of the university means that university campuses are no longer as central a meeting place in the student experience as they once were. (Read Roisin Murphy’s reflections on this phenomenon here).

This is a loss. Young people are losing out on all sorts of fun and formative activities in a time which should be filled with experimentation. Many of those activities are kind of cringe: getting really into student clubs obviously requires a suspension of artful apathy, it requires you to throw yourself into leisure unabashedly.

Yes, stupol is playacting. Yes, it can be deranged and absurd. Of course! That’s a good thing. Young people should get to be deranged and absurd — cringe be damned.

When you have a vivid and well-populated stupol culture on campus, you have far more of an opportunity to engage with other students. You have more conversations about what it’s like to be a student. You think a lot about what would make for a better campus.

There’s a second reason why student politics is important: it’s valuable for young people to have to form and advocate for their political ideals. Writing a policy statement, answering questions from voters and Honi, getting into screaming matches at Council: these are valuable pursuits. We should do more of them. 

Political debate has waned on campus. Self-identification as being “independent” or “apolitical” has increased, discourse occurs anonymously (shame!), Honi doesn’t get enough angry letters anymore. People are afraid of disagreement, afraid of earnestness and afraid of being wrong. This, too, is a loss. 

You might respond: student political debate is frequently mired in bad argument. It can be lazy, irrational, rife with ad hominems and factionalism. This is true, but I don’t think it is a sufficient reason to wish for its absence. A culture full of debate — where political arguments are not to be feared or skirted around — would help us to argue better; it would lessen the catastrophe of being disproven and increase the student appetite for good reasoning.

It is unfortunate that university students, many of whom will go on to have prominent roles in society, can plausibly pass through their entire university degree without ever really engaging with political ideas they disagree with. It’s worse still that this engagement is viewed, derisively, as an imposition.

With all that said, I understand why people are unwilling to participate in student politics. Not only does involvement take time and energy commitment that most of us (me included) cannot afford, stupol has big problems. The people involved in it are very privileged — which sometimes goes remarkably unexamined — and therefore bring the attendant problems of privilege into stupol. Misogyny, racism, classism and ableism are recurrent characters in student political theatre. This means all the acrimony and derangement takes on a sinister character, a phenomenon as repellent as it is frequent. 

This article can’t fix all that, but it can observe that the problems with stupol emerge from  the problems with our universities themselves. If student life, and consequently student politics, was accessible to all students, these problems would be less endemic.