Posted inOpinion

The Union As It Is: A Life Worth Living?

In a coffee shop on Turl Street, a conversation is happening in hushed tones. In a pub on Cornmarket, plans are being made. On a bench in Christ Church Meadow, a new connection forms. And in a musty office on the upper floor of a decaying building on St Michael’s Street, someone sits cramming for their evening duties and wonders if it was all worth it.

In truth, that person’s assessment of whether or not it was worth it is unreliable. Whether they lie to you or, as seems more likely, lie to themselves, there is an unavoidable motive—as always—to self-justify. It costs a lot to progress up the Union pole and for some, the prospect of retrospective regret is not worth facing. But more than that, their experience in the Union has shaped them as people to some undeniable extent, and whether the person you are is better than the person you might have been is something even the most intense introspection might struggle to get at.

The impact it has varies depending on the standing someone give the Union in their lives. Some enter with a good number of external friends and try to treat the Union like any society that you get involved in. Others go in with high ambitions and little else going on, and make the Union ‘their thing’.

The distinction is not cut and dry because it’s easy to drift from the former to the latter. The Union takes the most titillating aspects of social dynamics and gives them extra juice. Now, if you don’t like someone, it’s not just a fun thing to bitch about—it’s a political statement. Now, if you see a group of friends forming, it could be the beginning of some kind of alliance. Union gossip becomes more interesting than the everyday stuff that other people subsist on and, as time spent at the Union grows, it increasingly feels like the non-Union people in your life just don’t get it.

At the same time, making new friends in such a transactional and stilted environment—where you are encouraged to see people as means and not ends—seems unnatural, like looking for love in a strip club. Yet it happens a great deal. The starting point for a lot of these relationships is bonding, in hushed tones, over the latest drama that’s hit the Union gates. They may start transactionally but as you are collectively dealt mishaps and melodrama, that sense that you’re in the same boat naturally becomes a genuine connection. As one hack better put it, “you go through a lot of sh*t together”.

This breaks a rule—the sources interviewed for this series were reluctant to be quoted verbatim. Hacks develop personal brands in the crucible of these crises. Their lines about the Union and its dysfunction have been repeated so many times to so many people that quoting them risks identification. In the same vein, it is generally only a week or two before well-versed readers of Cherwell’s John Evelyn gossip column can work out who the anonymous writer is for that term.

With regard to Union drama, there are different kinds. There are the standard tactical moves—what you might call ‘backstabbing’. Slate formation can be messy. When someone joins a slate, it is said that they are ‘locked in’, which is language intended to give some bite to pledged loyalty. People still switch slates when it’s convenient, generating more (at least feigned) outrage than you might imagine. Sometimes, in the days before nominations, someone you thought you could trust starts a surprise contest against your slate, and you have to go round decrying their ‘coup’.

The truth is that disloyalty and plotting and lying, despite the bad look, can be the most effective moves available. The question of whether to be (truly) outraged or to nod your head and say ‘fair enough’ depends on what’s part of the game and what’s not. Unsurprisingly, the code of the game changes for many hacks when it’s convenient for them to break it, and the outraged become the outrageous.

This, according to one source, used to be the main thing student papers reported on about the Union. Now, they claim, the character of Union ‘scandal’ has changed. In Trinity 2019 (“Trinity elections are always the most toxic” they say knowingly), the big stories were about someone mysteriously nominating for Treasurer ‘by accident’, and the winning Secretary candidate being tribbed for breaking election rules. Later that year, a blind black postgrad was forcefully removed from a Union debate. This infamous incident and the subsequent presidential resignation supposedly marked a turning point in Union scandals from being generally more about procedural malpractice to now what we might call ‘cancellation’.

In Trinity 2020, a (white) candidate on one slate was met with repulsion after sending hack messages referencing the George Floyd protests.

“I find that I’m having a hard time making sense of the world right now and at its best, I think the union provides a place for that to happen.”

Trinity 2020 candidate hack message.

In the same election, the presidential candidate on the other slate was accused of racist comments. The election for president was won by RON.

In Trinity 2021, somebody claimed that a candidate on the ‘Open’ slate was guilty of sexual harassment. The slate—previously expected to win—did not remove the candidate, insisting they were innocent. They lost to currently outgoing president, Molly Mantle.

When allegations like these are made, they tend to be within the day or two before elections. Those 24 to 48 hours, for all concerned, are hectic and unpleasant. Phones get flooded with messages. Everyone is trying to find out whether allegations are true and, perhaps more importantly, what everyone else plans to do.

Even without significant scandal, the days before election day and, of course, election day itself, are rough. An operation has to be managed to get out the vote, and criticisms from outside and uneasiness from inside have to be quashed wherever they arise. It is in these days when most hacks have breakdowns.

The final form of Union scandal concerns internal mistreatment. Union culture revolves around career progression through a hierarchy. Power dynamics are front and centre of Union social structure. This environment, where power and status grease the wheels and set expectations, has made bullying and sexual harassment between hacks a particularly pernicious problem. At its worst, the power of the perpetrators is used to dismiss concerns and allegations, often with misogynistic undertones. Such dismissals encourage others to keep quiet about their own experiences.

These three categories—backstabbing, cancellations, and internal bullying and harassment—are what people refer to when they call the Union ‘toxic’ (when they actually know what they’re referring to). And every year, new students become aware of the toxicity and join the mass of people who talk of the Union with a laugh and a shake of the head, hacks included. This all, as just discussed, is fairly well-founded. The result is hacking along the lines of ‘I don’t like the Union, and you don’t either, so please vote for me’.

What is important to realise is that the people most hurt by these problems are the hacks themselves. The impetus for reform in these areas is to improve hack welfare, to avoid the flurries of emotionally-charged infighting and insensitivity that lead to breakdowns and personal pain. 

When it comes to reform on these fronts, the most practicable changes are reactive, rather than preventative. The Union is supposedly bringing in a Welfare Officer on next term’s Appointed Committee. This is long overdue, and has only happened in response to welfare problems in some cases getting completely out of hand. There should be support in place for when things get overwhelming and greater understanding when someone feels they need to take a break. It should be positive in itself to have a position which acts as a reminder that mental wellbeing has to be in mind when people work with their subordinates. In addition to this, the newly-modified reporting system for sexual harassment and bullying needs to be well-publicised and thought-through. People must be able to seek action against perpetrators without having to politicise it (or at least with less of an excuse to politicise it).

These changes don’t exactly solve cultural issues. There’s a limit to what can be prevented. The backstabbing element of Union life results from base political incentives. Winning elections has sufficient perks to make opportunism attractive. And there is an accountability gap—opportunists cannot be identified and sanctioned soon enough for opportunism not to be worthwhile. As long as the Union has elections, there will be nastiness and fallout.

In one of the more serious accounts of possible Union reforms of recent years, ex-hack Ayman D’Souza proposed that Seccies become appointed, rather than elected—to reduce the reach of hacking and the scale of political games. The concern with this is that there are elections for a reason. The Appointed Committee has a tendency to be made up of people the appointers are friends with, or want to be friends with. Seccies provides a route into the Union on other grounds. And even without Seccie elections, remaining elections would still provide room for usual antics. But maybe D’Souza is right that it would reduce the extent to which hacking reaches the average student—in which case, we have to consider how much we actually have a problem with receiving those messages.

A further cultural roadblock is that the Union’s famed toxicity is a selection pressure. It welcomes only those willing to suffer such costs for a shot at this extra dimension of Oxford success. Hacks say “some people are nice; some are awful” but of course none of them think they are the awful ones. They certainly, as a cohort, tend to be more hard-nosed and coldly ambitious than average and this can exacerbate the problems that put off others in the first place. But, as one hack put it, this could partly be a benefit. In a way, it cordons off this group. The Union with its perks and historical cachet is a honeypot for a category of people that, if forced, would find other places to ‘succeed’. And if somewhere, why not this debating society?

We are undoubtably fortunate to have it in other ways. It’s a cold and uninspiring Thursday afternoon but you can go down the road and sit by a marble of Gladstone and listen to words thousands around the world go on YouTube to hear. You can do it in the flesh, in a chamber with over a century of history, and insist that your watching of Dara O’Brien fits into a tradition that includes the ‘King and Country’ debate and Malcolm X.

It does a job, and has its quirks, and could be better. The point of this series was not to throw the Union in the mud. It was just to describe it as it is, as I found out. Yet certain people at the Union have decided these are unacceptable hit pieces and have tried genuine intimidation to dissuade The Blue from releasing them. There have been attempted bargains and blackmails to try and dictate their content. The truth is this really isn’t hard-hitting journalism, and to think that there needs to be some kind of operation to control it is fairly mad. But I guess the Union does turn everyone at least a little bit mad.

Read Part 1, The Union As It Is: Starting Outhere.

Read Part 2, The Union As It Is: Keep Scrutinising, Don’t Look Down, here.