It could be disingenuous to talk of ‘Oxford culture.’ Sure, there are rituals with which we all engage, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But be it the pomp and back-stabbing of the Union, the cheap(ish) alcohol and questionable music of the club scene, or the 5am starts and straining muscles of rowing, we all inhabit and mould our own subcultures. There is a great deal to celebrate about our university, but there is equally a great deal to critique. One such thing I have run into repeatedly is an enforced culture of apathy; the hidden tyranny of the insistence on all things being ‘apolitical’.
Don’t get me wrong – between a Labour Club that alternates between listening to backbench MPs and trying to become backbench MPs, a Conservative Association that does its best to resemble a 1920s fox hunt, and the UK’s second least-popular student union, I can certainly sympathise with the level of ‘rejection-ism’ of the obnoxious, the boring, and the irrelevant.
But a bit of taking the piss isn’t what I’m talking about. I have spoken to people (on both the left and the right) who have wanted to leave their colleges because of how ostracised they felt, not because people disagreed with their opinions, but because they were rejected for daring to be ideological. I’ve never had it that bad, but as a naïve fresher I did bring a motion to my JCR calling upon it to support a demonstration against fees. I thought the motion might lose, but wasn’t prepared for being told that I had somehow done something deeply wrong by upsetting the ‘apolitical’ balance of the JCR. The motion was amended to a few sentences saying ‘we recognise that people in the common room have different opinions.’ Quiet Facebook deletions followed. Later, as an OUSU representative, I was told to abstain from voting on ‘political’ motions.
Firstly, the argument that we can be ‘apolitical’ is nonsense. It’s tacit endorsement of the status quo – which is a political act. ‘Neutral’ decisions that JCRs take all the time are loaded with political assumptions, and by being an elected body, the JCR is a political institution. I’m not arguing that common rooms should be partisan (I really don’t want to see an OUCA-OULC contest for JCR food rep) or that we have to spend every Sunday discussing the eurozone, but simply that we can’t get away from politics, and rigid social enforcement of such rules doesn’t accomplish that aim. It alienates people and shuts down debate – exactly what it claims to avoid.
In-vogue OUSU-hate is a classic example. It’s fine for people not to bother voting because they think their union is irrelevant. Personally I’d disagree – a representative voice to the university that also campaigns for equal rights and mental health awareness, charities, student projects, and a counselling service is important. But that’s your decision. What’s slightly odder is when people decide to act as if a weekly student union email is somehow destroying their life. Or when common-room committees railroad through misleading ‘disaffiliation referenda’, which are actually impossible as students are union members as individuals, and which might lead students to think that they’re disenfranchised in elections or can’t use central welfare services. It’s also mildly amusing when people in common room meetings say they couldn’t give a shit about discussing OUSU and then they’re the first to bleat and whine when they find out that their rep voted on something with which they disagree.
This university is full of wonderful people, and I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of my time here. But it’s also not worth brushing every problem under the carpet in the interests of keeping the peace. When doing access work, I used to spend a lot of time telling people that Oxford is an incredibly accepting place – let’s just ensure we’re always living up to that.
Comment is starting its second Conversation series, aiming to collect student perspectives on Oxford life and culture – submit anything you wish on this theme to firstname.lastname@example.org. We might even print it.
FEATURED PHOTO/ Nathan Akehurst