Comment & Analysis
Mar 31, 2015

A Top-down Approach to Debate Has Stifled Dissent at SU Council

Claire Donlon and Edmund Heaphy argue that the current culture at SU council discourages healthy debate.

Claire Donlon and Edmund Heaphy

Of late, the student council meetings of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union have culminated in an atmosphere that stifles debate, disagreement and dissent. In any organisation, not all members will agree. This isn’t just a quirk arising from the fact that organisations are made up of people who will have varying opinions, but instead something fundamental and healthy – something required if organisations are to function well, produce new ideas, and improve on existing ones.

In that sense, it’s important to recognise that organisations need to have the mechanisms and skills to respectfully disagree with one another. And then, it’s even more important to recognise that when these mechanisms and skills are put to use, that we don’t discourage it. There’s a saying that says “the freedom of the press is meaningless unless somebody actually uses it”. The same thing applies to mechanisms and procedures in any organisation. They’re absolutely meaningless and purely ceremonial unless they’re tried and tested when needed.

Organisations need to have the mechanisms and skills to respectfully disagree with one another


Otherwise, a culture forms. Those with a critical eye, or those with probing questions, are glared at. Those who raise legitimate concerns about the actions of those in positions of power in an organisation are silenced. Unfortunately, this isn’t some hypothetical description of the grave possibilities that can arise when we don’t encourage debate, but instead something that has turned from an undercurrent at council to something that’s overtly affecting the way council is run, the way it makes decisions, and the way it deals with the serious actions of the people who are in charge of the union.

And, unfortunately, it’s coming from the top down. At the last council, the sabbatical officers – those who should be willing to step back and hear criticisms in the one forum where criticisms can be brought to their attention – were unable to take on board criticisms, confusing vocal disagreement with their actions as personal attacks. Claiming that someone is personally attacking you (when they’re not) is an extremely effective way of shutting down debate and shutting down the person or persons who brought the issue up in the first place. It shifts the conversation away from discussing the action that the dissenter has issue with. By attacking tone or how the issue was raised, it refocuses the conversation onto unrelated things. Tone policing is an efficient way of getting people who talk too much about things you don’t like to just stop.

By attacking tone or how the issue was raised, it refocuses the conversation onto unrelated things

This issue isn’t something that only we have noticed. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a member of Union Forum, the union’s executive decision making group, said: “I just don’t see council as a place where debate takes place anymore. If those who are putting forward an item for discussion don’t genuinely want to hear people disagree with them, then the entire point of council is negated. Council needs to hear a wide range of views and people need to feel like there is a culture of debate in order for council, and the SU, to fulfil their purpose”.

The function of council, the primary decision-making body of a union that claims to represent all of Trinity’s students, is not blindly passing motions or agreeing with those in higher positions than us. It’s debate. The reason all students are able to attend and speak is so that a diverse range of views can be heard – you do not have to be elected to a position for your opinion to be valid. If class reps are not encouraged to critically engage with the information that they are presented with, it has the potential to become a hive mind, where anyone with authority can take action without question.

Disagreement and dissent is a two-fold process. One must be able to dissent and disagree, and others must be able to receive it. Yes, if it is given in a certain way, dissent can come across as aggressive and hostile, but it can be too easy to dismiss dissenters as having a malicious agenda. We need to learn that by criticising an action, we’re not criticising a person’s character. While we do continually redefine how we see people based on the actions they commit, no-one is suggesting that we can judge a person entirely by one action. Saying that what someone, such as Finn Murphy, said in a message is inappropriate or not in line with the ethics of holding office in the union is not the same as personally attacking them. That kind of fallacy can say more about the motivations and bias of the person doing the defending than the person doing the criticising. Aoife O’Brien, who also serves on Union Forum as Gender Equality Officer, said: “If we honestly do want students to engage more with the union, then it is so vital that dissenting opinions are not met with groans from council and the passing of a procedural motion to sum up and vote to get them to shut up.” She went on: “Students won’t want to engage with a system that only engages with them as long as they agree and play by the rules, which are simultaneously being broken by more senior officers.”

You do not have to be elected to a position for your opinion to be valid

The atmosphere that these kinds of attitudes create prevents people from feeling like they can get up and disagree, even about the less contentious issues. The sabbatical officers, instead of sitting as members of council, interject and refuse to follow procedure. Often, an officer “chimes in”, trivialising and quelling debate – setting the tone for how the discussion should go. The sabbatical officers rebuke people from their seats, talk over class reps and ignore the proper format for debate. The few class reps who feel comfortable dissenting must too break from council procedure and speak from their seats to be heard, and council has descended into squabbling at times because of this. Sabbatical officers often gobble up all the time at council by talking too much and not opening the floor early enough. We spent more time this year listening to the sabbatical officer team than they do to class reps.

A school convenor, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that sabbatical officers often quickly forget their promises of “advocating free speech, equal representation and an opportunity for all to be heard”, saying that council is a “prime opportunity for this very promise to be upheld, but we have all been disappointed recently.” They said that “sly looks, sighs of disagreement and forceful interjections create an atmosphere where we feel idiotic for proposing our opinion.” They concluded: “This is not a union for all students, not even close.”

We need to learn that by criticising an action, we’re not criticising a person’s character

A reason why people are slow to disagree is because many people within the union have their strongest friendship networks within this working environment. Let us not forget the image synonymous with TCDSU – that it’s just a big massive back-scratching clique. There is nothing malicious about friendship networks forming. It’s a consequence of people spending a lot of time together. But people must learn to separate work and pleasure. Because what reps do is work, insofar that it is a position of responsibility. All work and no play is a mantra no-one in college wants to follow. Let there be fun, and let there be a social side. But council at the moment is a little too much “ah sure, it’ll be grand” and not enough, “right, settle down everyone. Let’s get down to to work”. Anyone who isn’t in on the jokey atmosphere is against that. It’s an exclusionary, “us vs them” culture.

Tellingly, Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne has said that the most enriching part of the year so far was the time when he visited faculty meetings about the strategic plan. This was because there was far less talking, and much more listening. If people are not being listened to, they will stop talking. They will stop going to council. They feel unimportant and disengage from a process that lectures them instead of consulting them. If people sigh, wriggle in their seats and tweet as if people are batty when someone stands up to criticise or to point out legitimate problems with the way things are being done, or the way things have been done, we move further and further away from the point of council. Council becomes a rubber-stamping exercise where we unanimously agree to spending €80,000 on a therapeutic sun room, and where serious attacks and rumour-spreading are swept under the carpet.

Council becomes a rubber-stamping exercise

These issues evidently have been noticed by many within the union, and some are making plans to directly combat this, with Molly Kenny, Education Officer-elect, being just one. With changes to training of officers and giving more structure to faculty meetings, she feels that these problems can be solved and better lines of communication between everyone can be made. The fact that officers-elect have made plans to combat this culture from continuing and taking root is heartening. This will not, however, be a magic solution. If on an individual level people cannot realise the error of their actions, that culture will continue to take hold.

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