Echo chambers and the need for diversity of opinion

Contemplating the political divide on campus is surprisingly straightforward, namely because one does not really exist.

Spending a day trotting around the University of Edinburgh, going to lectures, societies and sitting in university cafes, one would not guess we were in a Britain ruled by a Conservative government, whose population voted to leave the European Union.

This is not strictly true: you would be able to guess these facts, but only from the amount of resentment aimed at those responsible for these circumstances.

In Edinburgh, as well as across all campuses in the United Kingdom, we find ourselves bubbled up into a climate where majorities are flipped on their heads. To be a Brexiteer at university is about as fashionable as wearing Crocs as an adolescent – you would not dream of doing it in 2019.

The evidence of this is not hard to come by. Back on 23rd June 2016, our doomsday stroke independence day (take your pick), one in six students voted Leave, leaving the other five to back Remain.

If anything, this majority has only increased. Today we find ourselves with a Student’s Association unequivocally backing a so-called ‘People’s Vote’, whose policy promise is to ‘‘campaign to remain in the EU’’. As a student at the University of Edinburgh you are automatically enrolled as a member of this association, who ‘‘represent your [the student body’s] views’’. This is no criticism of the Association; if anything, they are doing their job very well, representing and acting upon the views that so many of us hold.

Yet in stark contrast to this, as soon as one zooms out across the British Isles, the thirst for Brexit to be delivered has not disappeared. Interpretations of the European Election result back in May, as well as YouGov’s polls tracking the public favourability towards Boris Johnson at the time of writing, suggest this country is yearning for a solution to, and the deliverance of, Brexit. The Brexit Party stormed to victory in May whilst Johnson’s popularity – at least among the electorate – is refusing to drop despite so many Brexit-fuelled constitutional controversies. Many will disagree, but I believe the appetite for leaving the EU is as strong today as it ever has been.

I myself am in the group of people who had they had the vote in 2016, would have voted Remain, but have since come to accept the result of the referendum and believe as a point of democracy that we need to exit the European Union on 31 October.

None of this is about my views on Brexit or the legitimacy of referendums. This is about exploring why and how university has become an echo-chamber for certain political views, successfully muting those who you could go so far as to perceive as being part of the nation-wide majority in our current times.

An interview I held during the Fringe with comedian Konstantin Kisin, part of our alumni, sparked further my interest in how we find ourselves where we are today. Kisin, famed for his beliefs in the value of free speech, told The Student back in August that universities are ‘‘essentially indoctrination pods’’. An extreme view, for sure, however his insight into how this has happened is worth sharing with you. About fifty years ago we saw what has since become known as ‘The long march through the institutions’. The broad result of this was that the ratio of liberals to conservatives within faculties on campuses rose from about two to one to ten to one. After a process which began in the sixties, we find ourselves in an institution dominated by a certain set of beliefs which now manifest themselves as anti-Brexit and anti-conservative, pro-EU and left of centre. Whether you share in these beliefs, which most of us will do, or you do not, I ask you to recognise the limitations resulting from this situation. You can still be part of the university status quo and realise this, I promise.

Diversity of opinion is what allows us to sort the good ideas from the bad, the right ideas from the wrong. Since we all reside from, or at least study in, a country set to leave the European Union, we would do well to try to come around to the idea of Brexit.

University is indeed an echo chamber. The silent minority, who, if we zoom out from the world of George Square, are in fact the majority, need not be silent. For this to be achieved there will have to be a drastic change in outlook from so many of us at university.

Quotations bringing these ideas to real life are widespread throughout the cannon. Edgar, the once naïve son of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear,  realises at the very climax of the play that we should ‘‘Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’’.

Whether or not we can give similar canonical status to The Student back in 1944 is a debate for another time, however one of our staff back then encouraged writers to ‘‘write what they think, for that is interesting’’, and that ‘‘if they try to write what they ought to think it will be plain boring’’.

After all, just how liberal is our liberal consensus if one does not feel able to challenge it?

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The Student Newspaper 2016