Boycotting elections only serves those you oppose

Credit: Tom Watt

Claire Thomson
Writer

There’s a cosy assumption made by some living firmly in the “liberal bubble” of university that the big building that looks a bit like Hogwarts is largely populated by those with similar views to themselves.

I count myself as one such student, privileged and sheltered enough to assume that yes, Glasgow still had a way to go on the gender and racial equality fronts, but the University wasn’t plagued with truly hateful attitudes. How wrong I was. My little liberal bubble was well and truly burst when I heard that at least ten fellow students had signed a piece of paper nominating a racist, misogynist, paedophile apologist, and professional troll, (I could go on) for the role of rector.

These students thought that nominating the poster boy for the alt-right, a man who validates and gives voice to the prejudices that people of colour and women have fought for so long to eliminate, was the best thing for Glasgow University in 2017.

Whether they saw him as the heir to Ross Kemp in the grand tradition of the joke rector, or actually champion this man’s views and see him as a bastion of free speech, we can’t know for certain. I’m not sure which is worse: imagining the guffaws of self-congratulatory students who are privileged enough to feel unthreatened by their university condoning abhorrent prejudice, or imagining the excitement of alt-right keyboard warriors when their de facto leader accepted the nomination.

Either way, this candidate and his nominators need to be met with a resounding and definite no from our campus. I understand the argument that one of the best ways to tackle hateful individuals or groups is to deprive them of the attention they crave. That’s precisely why I have avoided explicitly using their names – they have enough Google hits as it is.

Removing such individuals from high profile platforms and actively working to reduce their audience is not a threat to free speech or liberty, no matter what they would have you think. Free speech means everyone has the right to speak. Free speech does not mean that everyone has the right to be listened to. Free speech does not give people the right to spew bilious hate speech for attention and act like the victim when they discover that their words have consequences.

No-platforming works, and it can work well. But the problem here is that these individuals have already been given a platform. Unless the University is willing to remove both men from the ballot in line with its diversity and equality policy – which I very much hope it will do – we need to fight to ensure that this platform does not become the University Court.

So long as they remain on the ballot, the only way to ensure that problematic candidates don’t become problematic rectors is to vote for a different candidate. Leaving aside the bitter irony of feminists encouraging other women and allies not to exercise their right to vote, there is no genuinely positive outcome of a boycott. At best, a boycott will give rise to calls of “student apathy”, “disengage d millennials” and give the University ample excuse to further exclude students from decision making processes. Echoes are loudest in empty rooms – boycotting this election will only allow the grassroots of the alt-right to germinate and delight in the reverberations of their own voices and votes. Students need to tell this gang of alt-right groupies that they have no place here, that their values are not congruent with those of this university and its student body.

Boycotting the election will not do this. Boycotting will do absolutely nothing but encourage the peroxide provocateur and his disciples. Firstly, there’s the fact, plain and simple, that if those uncomfortable with the idea of this idiot representing them don’t turn out and vote, he will win. As Brexit and Trump have shown us, it’s dangerous to underestimate the numbers or the fervour of those opposed to progress.

Secondly, low turnout will not be read by any fan of the alt-right as a sign of discontent or protest. Instead, they will point to their vote percentage with glee, a high vote share lauded as evidence of their widespread approval. Glasgow students’ tacit approval will become fuel for the flames of the alt-right’s spread. This election isn’t the biggest issue facing the country right now. Despite how it might feel when you’ve barely left campus, much less the city, for ten weeks, Glasgow University isn’t at the centre of the universe. But that’s exactly why we can’t laugh at these nominees, or dismiss this election as unimportant because it’s “so Glasgow Uni.”

If these people are allowed to win here, to count this university as one of their stomping grounds, it spells bleak things for the future of progress. I don’t doubt that even if they’re defeated, one of these people in particular will go on to seek election to god knows what body in god knows what country.

Handing him this victory will be little more than a head start, a pat on the back for a job well done, and encouragement to take his campaign of hate to higher levels, beyond the walls of our university and god help us, to actual government. Rejecting the alt-right on campus won’t put a complete halt to their project, far from it. But if you don’t want to condone the messages and the actions of the altright, and if you’d rather not don vile racists and transphobes with rectorial gowns, your only option is to vote.

Boycotting might be trendy, but there’s nothing radical or effective about gifting an election to a man who threatens the safety of minority groups on campus. If you’re privileged enough that such a rector won’t bother you, consider yourself lucky. But if you have any interest in actually protecting those who are scared and endangered by even the prospect of either of these men’s election, you must use your vote.