The student left must learn to listen to survive

Sam Rhodes 8 April 2015

Another holiday, another bout of argument and introspection from the Cambridge left. There’s nothing wrong with that; holding each other to account and having conversations about what is going wrong is a vital part of any political grouping, however loosely aligned. Except that’s not what happened.

For those of you with better things to do with your time than obsessively follow student media, a brief recap may be necessary. A collection of individuals wrote an open letter to The Stepford Student, laying down a variety of charges against the new website, including flippancy towards women and feminism, dismissal of criticism from women and those who identify as non-binary, and lack of broad economic representation. 

The SS (a remarkably unfortunate acronym) replied with a slightly mealy-mouthed effort, admitting fault regarding the lack of diversity amongst editors and reopening applications for editorships, but failing to reference the majority of the suggestions or criticisms made within the letter.

This is a problem.

This is a problem because there are important conversations that need to stem from this letter. Unfortunately, they haven’t happened, at least not in a public space. In no small part, this is due to the disclaimer which accompanied the original complaint.

“The people involved in writing this are unlikely to want to engage in a debate about whether our feelings about this are valid or otherwise. All of our thoughts are in the letter so you can find them there instead of in the comments section.”

Large sections of the complaint letter are absolutely spot on, and need no further clarification. The SS is for the most part an old boys' club of knackered student ex-journos who had been put out to pasture by their respective publications, meaning that a very particular view and experience of Cambridge unfairly dominates, and the overall editorial direction is murky to say the least. Of course it’s a new endeavour, and in many ways it’s a tremendously impressive one, but it absolutely needs kicking into shape by its audience.

However, there are certainly conversations surrounding the issues raised which simply need to occur in a dialogue. The SS has certainly been "flippant about feminism" – whatever that means in practice – but is that a problem? There may well be a case for saying that it is, but no such case has been asked for or presented. Without a shadow of a doubt the editorial staff are not representative of broader society, but we study at a university where your chances of getting in having received free school meals are less than 0.05%, so isn’t that true of any student group in Cambridge? Is it legitimate to castigate a privately educated individual for writing about being privately educated (like 35% of us) while also complaining about people writing about things outside of their experience? I’d argue that it’s not, but I’d like to actually have that conversation with someone, be that online or in person. 

Do not mistake this for yet another tiresome tract on free speech. It is absolutely correct that there are spaces in which people can share their experiences without being expected to explain themselves, and the right to a ‘reasoned and rational debate’ at the drop of a hat is one upon which I spit quite happily. Importantly, these spaces do not need validation from me, or anyone else.

However, if these criticisms are to reach their potential then they need to be part of a conversation, not a judgement handed down. There are times when a request for justification and explanation is more than an attempt to further silence an already oppressed group, just as there are times when it is nothing else. Being able to tell the difference is a valuable skill.

No one wants a situation where the People's Front of Cambridge end up facing off against the Cantab People's Front, while genuine opponents of the Cambridge left are free to run amok. Leaving open a space for communication, just like in any relationship, is absolutely vital.