Several weeks ago, the Central Societies Committee (CSC) voted against a motion calling for Dublin University Gender Equality Society (DUGES) to change their name to Dublin University Feminist Society, warning that such a change could “imperil” the future of the society. This event may now seem to be old news, but it should still be of major importance for anyone interested in improving the debate in our university.
What happened with DUGES suggests that there are some institutions in Trinity which are not that interested in creating a liberal atmosphere within our university.
According to an article in Trinity News, representatives of the CSC stressed that their opposition to the name change was purely constitutional, meaning that a society using the word feminist in their official name would break the CSC’s ban on societies taking political stances. Yes, in case you did not know, the CSC has an actual ban on societies expressing political views.
Giving how anti-democratic and anti-liberal this ban appears, it is disconcerting to see how few people in Trinity have ever challenged this policy.
First of all, Trinity already has 6 political societies (Labour, Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, PBP, Social Democrats and the Green Party). Granted, they are political-party societies, but political societies nevertheless. It’s hard to see how on one hand the CSC is perfectly fine with the idea of allowing these overtly political societies to exist, while on the other hand they are wary of societies which are not entirely political but hold one or more political views.
Secondly, it is hard to define the enforcement parameters of this ban while not being biased. Many “cultural” and “social” societies have already taken stances on various political issues over the last couple of years. For instance, Q Soc (the LGBT society) actively campaigned for a yes vote during the Marriage Referendum back in 2015. DU Amnesty International has promoted a pro-choice view on campus for several years now. And even DUGES has taken a stance on the 8th amendment.
Don’t get me wrong. We should welcome that these societies have partaken in and promoted political campaigns that are important to their members. In fact, we should try to have more societies that are not afraid to hold definite and firm political opinions.
When giving another argument for voting against the motion the Chair of the CSC, Benn Ó hÓgáin, said that allowing DUGES to change their name would “open the floodgates” to other societies wanting to take political stances.
Is there really a problem with that?
Why would there be a problem if the Christian Union or the Laurentian Society took a stance on the abortion debate? Would the debate in Trinity be impoverished if the Muslim Students Association decided to support a Repeal Vote provided there would be protection for the foetus after 4 months of gestation, in accordance with their religion’s teachings? Would the apocalypse ensue if the Environmental Society campaigned for the government to spend more on green energy development?
If DUGES were to change its name to the Feminist Society, the floodgates might indeed be opened, but it would only serve to bring freshwater into Trinity’s seemingly dying debate.
The truth is that the great majority of societies would not bother taking political stances on controversial issues because they would only do harm to themselves. For example, if DU Gamers, the Metafizz, or even the Phil decided to take a political stance on a certain issue, they would only be disenchanting some of their members and lose participation as a result.
What is really going to end up happening is that Trinity will have a couple of societies who will provide a positive contribution to debate on campus. Just look at Students for Justice in Palestine Dublin or Students for Life Dublin. Both of them are groups made up of Trinity students who are extremely active both on campus and on social media all year long without being official societies. Apart from these two groups, there are other potential societies (such as the Libertarian Society) which are currently collecting signatures and will soon be asking for the CSC’s approval to become official societies. We, as Trinity students, should be welcoming the formation of these societies regardless of our political beliefs.
The Treasurer of DUGES, Aoife Stephens, spoke in favour of the motion. “The society is its members and the members have voted unanimously in favour of this change.” This is where we come to the CSC’s main problem. It doesn’t matter if you have more than a hundred committed students willing to start a society or even if all of your members vote “unanimously” to change the name of their own society. You can’t start a political society or change the name of your society if the council does not approve.
If the CSC already provides overtly political societies with funding, why can’t they provide funding to other societies who hold distinct political views?
If their argument centres on not having the resources to fund more societies, they would have to realise that not all students are looking for some sort of subsidising. That being said, it may be a good idea to have an alternative route for students who wish to form an official society and have Trinity’s name but who do not require monetary aid. Being “too political” should not be an obstacle for this to happen.
A truly liberal atmosphere in Trinity can only exist if the very institutions that compose it are genuinely democratic and encouraging of debate. In the words of Trinity’s Vice-Provost Prof. Chris Morash, “if we want to belong to a community founded on rational decision-making, there is a fundamental right that everyone in Trinity needs to embrace in the months ahead: the right of those with whom we disagree to be heard fairly.” By allowing societies to adopt political stances the CSC can embrace this fundamental right.
As students of a university with a long standing tradition of political debate, we deserve a better CSC.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Burkean Journal.