A number of student unions have decided they will not allow Robin Thicke’s number one single “Blurred Lines” to be played in their commercial venues.
The trend began at Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) where the song was removed from playlists in line with their “End Rape Culture and Lad Banter on Campus” policy. This policy was democratically approved at an open meeting of around 600 students. According to the union’s Vice President, and National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts member, Kirsty Haigh, the song “promotes an unhealthy attitude towards sex and consent”.
When other unions followed suit, some decisions were taken in mass meetings or union councils, some by executives or lone officers. The difference between the two could not be greater.
Deciding to boycott “Blurred Lines” at a well-advertised Union Council, or better still General Meeting, is great. It encourages the entire student population to discuss big political ideas like consent, women’s liberation, freedom of expression, and heteronormativity.
If the campaign is run with strong political slogans it can help raise the consciousness of the student population.
Moreover the decision taken will have an effect on students outside the bubble of those who usually participate in student union activities: the students who use the union as a bar and nightclub and nothing else. If the issue gets a lot of attention it is possible that hundreds or thousands of students could begin discussing political issues which they would not normally give a second thought to.
A boycott like this teaches students an important lesson about what students’ unions are: democratic and political entities that fight for students’ rights and to change the world around them.
The main right-wing criticism of the campaign is that it violates freedom of expression. But it does no such thing. Students’ unions decide to play or not play songs, and to stock or not stock products every day. These decisions tend to be taken by unelected managers, DJs or staff. No one argues that it’s a violation of anyone’s freedom when a DJ refuses a request, why would it be when students make the decision democratically? No one is being stopped from listening to the song at home, or even at the union with their iPod. (Which, incidentally, is why I think that describing the campaign as a “ban” is unhelpful).
However some unions have boycotted the song on the say-so of a single officer or a small executive body (or even Trustee Board!). None of the benefits of a boycott is achieved if the song is removed from playlists without a wider debate and discussion. And if the decision is not publicised properly, no one learns anything. It will make it easier for the boycott to be dismissed as out-of-touch union officers exploiting their power in an authoritarian manner.
And actually, it is union officers acting in an authoritarian way. We should want to encourage democracy in unions because we should want more democracy in society as a whole. Teaching people that students’ unions should be democratic helps to convince them that the world should be more democratic. In contrast, addressing issues with bureaucratic-authoritarian methods undermines that struggle.
Describing the boycott as a “ban” is worse still and legitimises bans as a general tactic.
Aside from the big political ideas about democracy and socialism, relying on bureaucracy and bans is a terrible idea tactically. Students’ unions are unique institutions in that so many are run by the left. The overwhelming majority of institutions with this kind of bureaucratic-authoritarian power are run along very right-wing ideas.
Giving legitimacy to top-down bans surrenders a huge amount of terrain to the right — and when the right ban things it is always the oppressed, exploited and radical who lose out.
In judging the merit of the “Blurred Lines” campaign the critical point comes down to how boycott decisions are taken. So far in the debate around the issue this distinction does not seem to have come out very much at all.
Boycotts of the song are done with good intentions, and the criticism of the campaign has thus far been predominantly rightwing, but that does not mean that the ideas around the boycott do not matter.
Students unions should encourage debate and genuine democratic participation in decision-making in all areas, including commercial services. There is no shortcut to achieving this.