Categories such as “women”, “LGBT” and “BAME” are not prescriptive for a single set of views. The individuals who fall into these categories have opinions as diverse as everybody else.
“Liberation” is a term bandied about in the arena of student politics, in particular by the National Union of Students (NUS). Sadly, though formed from good intentions, it is a term in danger of losing its meaning. When a candidate claims their election will be one of empowerment for women, LGBT, disabled and black and ethnic minority students, it is impossible that they will satisfy the diversity of demands and opinions existing within these groups. Societies claiming to empower these marginalised groups have instead, at my university anyway, become half of the problem in people’s further marginalisation. This is because their foundation is built on an idea that groups such as women and LGBT are a hive mind – there is an “authentic” opinion for a woman to have, or a “gay person’s” view on the world. Any person who doesn’t prescribe to this promoted view somehow does not authenticate their identity.
What could be more patronising than the suggestion that if one is black or disabled, there is a view on how the world should be run that you will adhere to? Until liberation causes are willing to accept and listen to how heterogeneous their potential membership really is, they will continue to preserve an echo chamber that fails to fully represent their community.
This problem became especially apparent to me in the heated debate surrounding the NUS in recent months. Pro-NUS campaigners have suggested that NUS Sceptic campaigns (for universities to disaffiliate from the national union, in which I am involved) were organising an attack on disabled and ethnic minority students. For being an anti-NUS campaigner, a friend of mine was accused of “white washing”- until she very frankly put this certain individual down by pointing out she was, in fact, herself from an ethnic minority background. It was suggested in an NUS debate at Birmingham that, putting it crudely, by leave the NUS we would be contributing to the oppression of disabled people across the country. Aside from the very loose evidence used to back up such a sensationalist claim, this was particularly insulting as many involved in NUS Sceptics campaigns are actually disabled themselves. Are we suggesting that these disabled members must have internalised their own oppression? That they need certain, vocal members within the disabled student community to speak on their behalf?
Or, instead (gasp), could it be that they are individuals with their own autonomous minds, and the ability to determine their own opinion- just like everybody else who is non-disabled?
The delegate system the NUS runs at its conferences is built upon this protocol. A supposed beacon of democracy, those who fall into liberation categories are given the amazing option of choosing a delegate who defines within their group, and promises to protect “their” interests. Presumably as they fall within the same liberation category, what will automatically follow is a representation of their views at the conference, channelled through the selected delegate.
However, we are all individuals before our collective identity. This is why so many women, LGBT, disabled and ethnic minority students are being pushed into NUS sceptics and anti-NUS campaigns. As a woman, I for one am fed up of being told what it means to be a woman, what will help women, what women think and how women can be liberated by individuals within the NUS and student unions. The NUS appears to think that as some officers share a common identity with other students, these student’s needs will of course be met- and that is the end of the issue.
We cannot be boxed off into narrow categories, because we do not live narrow and single track lives. It is time for the NUS to realise this. We do not need a few specially selected delegates in order for minority individuals to have their voices heard.
The issue also became clear to me in the aftermath of an article I wrote against the NUS and student union policy of no-platforming. A gay friend of mine said he agreed with my view because, in experiencing ongoing homophobia, he knew very well that the world was not a “safe space” for homosexuals. He said that he knew it was better to challenge people’s homophobic opinions head on – not to lock himself away from ever having to interact with those who have a different view. Instead of being applauded as a member of the LGBT community who has been resilient in tackling homophobia, his opinions were dismissed as “not being the mainstream” and that he “did not know shit”. He clearly didn’t have the opinion these people wanted to believe was the opinion of a gay person- and so, in failing to live up to the authentic standard of gayness, he was not listened to.
My friend should of course listen to the NUS, who this year discussed the notion that as gay men are no longer oppressed, gay men’s representatives should be removed from the organisation.
A binary is drawn. One must support the NUS for the liberation of marginalised groups; everyone else just wants to oppress them. This is of course paradoxical because, for many NUS Sceptics, it suggests they are willing to oppress themselves.
If you are serious about liberation, you will know we cannot solve these issues in a single-track approach. You will not ignore such opinions held by my friend, which may well differ to your own. Though we mostly want the same ends, this will not always be through the same means.
Another objection was that “in a white capitalist cis hetero-patriarchy, you no platform certain individuals to take control back to marginalised groups”. Perhaps that is so; but then, how do you explain the attempts to no-platform Julie Bindel from the University of Manchester? A lesbian woman from a working class background, she has made no secret of how she has experienced difficulties throughout her life in relation to falling into these categories. Love her or loathe her, she has been an advocate for the most vulnerable women in society for many years through her campaign group Justice for Women. The same goes for Maryam Namazie, an advocate for migrant rights, who was initially banned from speaking at the University of Warwick. Taking a platform away from individuals like Bindel and Namazie is nothing to do with liberation – in fact, it falls in counter opposition to it. It instead entrenches the delusion that there is a correct opinion for a woman to have, a correct opinion for a lesbian to have; all who fall outside of that box are silenced.
Terms such as “diversity” and “liberation”, on face value, can be used as boxes that are easy to tick off as having been achieved. Yet, as Canadian-American comedian Steve Crowder recently said to screeching protesters at UMass: “the only kind of diversity you people don’t like is intellectual diversity”. We need to appreciate that liberation groups are a diverse set of individuals. They may be individuals we like, they may be individuals we loathe, but they are nonetheless individuals who have a right to equal hearing in debate.
Writer and editor for Conatus News, and contributor to various other publications. Student at University of Birmingham and recovering member of the Labour Party and student politics.