Beef, muddled motions and misinformation on campus

By the time you read this, you will know the outcome of the ballot. This is not a polemic telling you which way you should have voted, nor a cry to boycott the process altogether. It is not an impassioned plea for you to put down your steak, nor a diatribe against the removal of your choice.

This is merely a reminder that important issues can be misrepresented by both sides, skewed by hyperbole, agenda and a manipulation of terms. The Edinburgh University Students’ Association’s now-infamous ‘beef motion’ is just one example.

At a Student Council meeting on 30 January, the motion ‘Cease the sale of all beef products in Students’ Association Cafes and Restaurants’ received 51 per cent of votes in favour. This was 15 per cent short of the majority required to have the proposal passed outright, prompting the opening of an online ballot. If the online motion receives over 50 per cent of votes in favour, then it is enacted.

During the aforementioned council meeting, Students’ Association President Andrew Wilson inserted an amendment, mandating the conduction of a feasibility study, which would explore the possibility of ceasing the sale of beef in their cafes and restaurants.

This amendment has not been reflected in the title of the motion, and those who visit the Students’ Association website to cast their vote are largely unaware that they are not voting for or against an outright ban on beef in university eating areas.

Both Wilson and the university’s Farm Animal Veterinary Society have publicly spoken out against the motion, albeit without mentioning the inclusion of the feasibility study clause. This may not be a case of deliberate misdirection, but few who voted in the poll will have read the full terms. This is reflective of a wider trend among both students and the United Kingdom’s population as a whole.

In short, we don’t check the small print. We vote with our hearts and don’t think about the minutiae of the issues on which we are called to make decisions.

Representatives of both sides of the Brexit debate were guilty of spreading misinformation, and the British public, more often than not, were guilty of accepting this misinformation without complaint.

According to a recent report conducted by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), immigrants from European countries pay £4.7bn more in taxes than they receive in welfare benefits and services, but you would not think that from the xenophobic rhetoric upon which the Leave campaign was founded.

The overly pessimistic, even doom-mongering, predictions of the Remain camp were hardly better, and it should be no wonder that the result is an electorate susceptible to information which reinforces their entrenched beliefs.

Just look at the revellers who saw in ‘Brexit Day’ in the UK recently, their joy at a nation reclaimed captured by television news. One woman expressed her relief at emancipation from an EU ‘state’; another shared her delight that “our courts will have the right to say what goes on – instead of Germany”, apparently unaware of the European Court of Justice’s location in Luxembourg.

These are not people who lack morals, or who are necessarily devoid of intelligence. They are just repeating what they have been told, regardless of the veracity of these claims. This is the state of political discourse in Britain today, and we are all culpable.

What does this have to do with Edinburgh? What does this have to do with beef? As with our departure from the EU, we, as students at this university, must ensure that we are informed before we cast our votes. We must not demonise the other side, either as monsters who are wilfully destroying the planet through their love of burger patties, or as crypto-fascists who aren’t allowing us to eat what we want. 

The Students’ Association’s motion, and the overarching question of how consuming beef affects the environment, is nuanced. We must treat it as such.

We must acquaint ourselves with the facts and disregard deceptive statements, whether shown online or on the side of a bus. After all, this is our future we’re talking about.

Image: Keith Weller/USDA via Wikimedia Commons

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The Student Newspaper 2016