On Campus

Has apathy been prorogued?

Students' engagement with abstract political issues faces a test this week

Unless you live under a rock off campus, someone has probably informed you that federal Parliament has been prorogued, and that this raises various concerns about constitutional law, democratic process, legitimate governance…or not. More likely you’ve just heard about this prorogue thing in terms that suggests it’s bad. Because going any further than that requires a very involved discussion.

I won’t attempt to summarize the running dialogue on exactly what it means that Parliament has been prorogued. There is a huge amount of news coverage available on the topic. But it is highly significant that a lot of the energy and organization against this action, by the government, is based on and around Canada’s post-secondary campuses.

All of this is leading up to protests planned across Canada (and in some cases abroad) this Saturday. Will they materialize? Will they be well attended? Will they be significant enough to gain some attention and coverage, competing as they are with the disaster in Haiti and the political realignment occurring in the U.S.? Side note there, by the way. If the issue loses to Haiti that’s entirely justified. People are dying over there. But if folks would rather read about Obama than take the time to think about our own government that’s rather sad.

Any time students seem to get excited about something it raises questions about just how real and genuine it is, at the grassroots level. The CFS can usually manage some kind of a demonstration around tuition — but we all know those are fairly well stage-managed and they go directly to students’ self-interests. Meanwhile, the much talked-about walk out by Ontario college students barely materialized at all. And yet, when student anger does solidify it can be very powerful indeed. Vietnam War era protests come to mind. There was even a shadow of that around the invasion of Iraq.

Complicating this long-standing question of just how angry students really are, and how to tell when they’re serious, is the new phenomenon of social media. As Obama’s campaign demonstrated, social media and digital communities can certainly be rallied to produce tangible and dramatic results. At the same time, thousands of people in a Facebook group can produce the illusion of a movement with no real substance. And as heavy adopters and users of social media, it’s hard to know when students are seriously pissed off and when a lot of them have simply joined a digital fad.

One thing is for certain. The organizers of these protests and the promoters of this issue have succeeded, at least, in getting “prorogue” into the public vocabulary. And that’s no simple feat. Their campaign for attention has been effective and clever. But the test is this Saturday. Will it translate into real bodies? Will people stand in the cold and give real voice to their displeasure, or is this popular discontent only sufficient to prompt the creation of Facebook groups? Because it still comes down to that. Without feet on the street no one will care.

Personally, I’m hoping for a large turn-out. Not merely because of my position on the issue, but because I’d like to believe that students do have the capacity to become active and engaged over such an abstract issue. Students pissed off about the cost of their tuition isn’t news and in fact it’s barely political engagement. It’s just obvious self-interest made manifest. Students pissed off about the state of their democracy — now that’s pretty cool.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

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