Anti-Cuts demonstration

November 27, 2010

I’ve spent the last couple of days in an occupation at Edinburgh University, fighting against the cuts to education proposed by the coalition government in the UK. On Wednesday a group of students took over a lecture theatre in Appleton Tower, and the group has been there since then. What do we want? We have a pledge which we want the university to sign, and that’s it. I don’t think there’s anything controversial about it, and indeed I think the university largely agrees with it. The anarchists and socialists at the uni tend to take a leading role in these kinds of things at our university, and one of the benefits of that is that decisions are made using the consensus decisionmaking process of which I’m quite fond, and which was also used in the occupation for Gaza. I’ll expand on what that is towards the end of that post but first an update on what’s happening now and what will be happening in the near future.

Security were at first very reasonable. Matriculated students could access the building at night, and even non-students could access it during the day. The University Secretary did not come to speak to us until today because they’ve been tangled in graduations. Today she came down and said they’ll give a response to the demand on Monday. Then the head of security told us that we wouldn’t have access to the building over the weekend, except for informatics students who normally have access anyway. Unfortunately I had to leave this evening for a screening of the Blair/Hitchens debate (on now) and so it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get back in until Monday morning. Until then, we have meetings in Teviot at 1pm tomorrow and Sunday for the outsiders to help plan for 2 more events happening this week.

Firstly there’s a Scotland-wide rally starting at Bristo Square, Edinburgh, on Tuesday 30th at 11.30am. We’re hoping to get a walkout from several of the local schools, and a good turnout from universities across Scotland. Tuesday night is also the EUSA AGM where there are 2 relevant motions. On Sunday, we’ll have another rally for the benefit of those who work and who are stuck in school.

I’m running out of battery so I’ll describe the consensus decisionmaking process later.

Edit: Ok, managed to get myself smuggled back inside now, I’ll be here til I go to work tomorrow afternoon. The consensus decisionmaking process is a way in which a group can make decisions and get things done without having any kind of a leader (which is why it’s so popular with the anarchists). Basically in any meeting, someone takes the role of a facilitator. Typically the group will sit in a circle but that’s not necessary. At the start of the meeting, people raise their hands to put things on the agenda, and someone taking the minutes writes it down. Then going through the agenda, people raise one hand to make a point, both hands to make a direct response to something that’s just been said, they make a P shape to suggest a proposal, and a T shape to make a technical point (something outside the discussion such as “we’re running out of time” or “the building’s on fire”). On top of that, if you agree with something someone’s said, you wave your hands, palms facing forwards. If you disagree, you move them side to side, palms facing down. That way noone gets shouted down and there’s no applause so everyone can be heard. The role of the facilitator is to make sure people aren’t ignored, and that points get prioritised properly (technical points obviously come first, direct responses come before normal points, and proposals are prioritised over general points, particularly when we seem to be exhausting a discussion).

So typically a discussion will involve various points being made on various aspects of the discussion topic, then after a while someone makes a proposal (an action to be taken, a decision to be made, or – particularly in something like an occupation where there are lots of meetings over a few days – a decision to postpone discussion until another time). The facilitator then takes what’s called a ‘temperature check’, where everyone that agrees with the proposal waves their hands, then the facilitator asks if anyone disagrees. This is the important part – the discussion does not move forwards until the disagreement is resolved in some way. So if there is disagreement, some make points for, others against, and there’s another temperature check. This can come to one of three outcomes. Either everyone ends up agreeing on one of the two options or a compromise, or the group decides not to make a decision either way given that there’s no agreement, or if only a small number of people disagree, the facilitator asks if their disagreement is a ‘block’ or a ‘stand aside’. As the name suggests, a block is used only if the group’s passing a proposal would mean they want to leave the group, whereas a stand aside is if it’s not a massive issue. If some people decide to block, the rest of the group votes on whether it’s acceptable to overrule or not. Obviously people don’t like doing this, so I’ve only seen a block overruled when there was just one person disagreeing.

I think the advantages of this system are pretty obvious. The group isn’t led by any kind of clique or leader, and it is not just a majority rule, the whole group comes to an agreement about what to do and everyone is relatively happy about what is decided. The disadvantages are that it breaks down when there is serious disagreement with a significant number of people, that it can take a long time, and that the individuals in the group will not necessarily be the same the next time, so a decision made by one group can be binding on another group of individuals. But so far it’s worked.


Bibles in Pollock Halls? You’ve got to be joking…

November 6, 2009

Edit: Since writing this, it has come to my attention that the Christian Union actually have nothing to do with the motion (see comment dated 11/11/09). It was proposed by two of their long standing committee members, which is what led to the confusion on my part. I can only apologise for that assumption. Please note, however, that although much of the argument here is misdirected towards the CU, it loses none of its validity.


Unfortunately not. The Christian Union at the University of Edinburgh have put forward a motion for the student association’s AGM to allow themselves or another organisation to put Bibles in each of the bedrooms in Pollock Halls. If you’re a student at Edinburgh University, I urge you to read this post, although it’s likely to be quite long, and if you have a comment, if you disagree or whatever, post it here in the comments thread. I’d like to get a discussion on this motion going and hopefully get a bit of interest so that the necessary 300 students turn up to the AGM and it’s not a complete waste of time for everyone involved.

But first, a bit of history. A few years ago the Student Representatives Council passed a motion banning Gideon or any other religious organisation from putting Bibles in the rooms at Pollock Halls, the student halls. Following that, the CU proposed a motion to the general meeting lifting this ban, which got a majority of the vote, but not enough votes for it to pass (the EUSA system requires that at least 300 people vote for a motion for it to pass, they got 200 and something). This all happened before I was at uni and before the Humanist Society existed, but there are legends that when Gideon were allowed to place their Bibles in the rooms, it resulted in them being thrown out the window, torn to pieces or even in some cases burnt. I’m not exactly in favour of that but it demonstrates how a lot of students feel about evangelising on campus.

Anyway here’s a copy of the motion as it is now. As far as I can tell it hasn’t been amended so this is what will go before the general meeting. Seeing as I’m not in Edinburgh and won’t be able to attend the meeting, all I can really do about it is post a point-by-point rebuttal of what is says. This is more or less the argument I would give if I were to speak, and if I were given more time than you’re allowed at that meeting.

So, first up

The association notes: Article 9 (Freedom of thought, conscious and religion and freedom to manifest such beliefs in public and private) and Article 10 (Freedom of expression which includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers) of the European Convention of Human Rights which is incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

That’s absolutely true, it does say that. This is no doubt an inclusion of one of the proposers of this motion, law student David Nixon, who even managed to use the right to freedom of assembly to justify denying non-Christians access to the Christian Union earlier this year. That was bizarre, twisted logic and so’s this. He’s trying to use the right to freedom of conscience and expression to justify leaving a Christian text within the privacy of someone’s room. You have the right to express your opinion, you don’t have the right to come into my living room and do it. Interestingly, the motion doesn’t mention the second point to each of these articles, which states that these rights may be subject to conditions or restrictions in order to preserve the rights of others, among other things.

Next:

The association believes: That the Bible has had a powerful impact on Scottish Culture and is useful to the study of many disciplines including literature, history, law, social anthropology, classics, divinity and philosophy.

That’s true as well (although I’m not sure how it’s useful for the study of law – it is, of course, a perfect example of how not to do philosophy), but so what? Would you use it to justify putting the complete works of Robert Burns in every room in Pollock? The Bible is available online (this point will come up repeatedly, just to warn you), as well as in the library. Anyone needing access to it has it right there at their fingertips.

That many religions, philosophies and spiritualities respect the contents of the Bible.

Most of them consider it blasphemy, actually. Regardless, this is a popularity argument and has no place in a motion of this type.

That many students have taken comfort in a Bible passage in times of distress and this is important given that the University Chaplaincy Centre is only open 9am – 9pm weekdays and is only staffed 9am-5pm.

Let’s take a look at that claim, shall we? Nightline is also open throughout the night, but let’s leave that aside for a minute. What are common causes of distress? Maybe being a member of a disadvantaged or minority group? Say there’s a student who’s gay, but having only just moved to university, noone there knows. Quite a difficult situation, I’d say. Now say that student opens the Bible and discovers that according to that philosophy, they deserve to be put to death. Not exactly ideal. The same kind of discrimination found in the Bible refers to women, pagans, and anyone who’s not a Christian. This isn’t exactly the kind of thing that should be allowed to be placed in people’s rooms. Those who do want to consult the Bible can do so online, or in the library.

That by providing the Bible and other Scriptures the University is not necessarily promoting the contents of such texts but merely making a service available to students. There is nothing to prevent the university or EUSA attaching stickers to any books placed in Pollock making clear that the University does not endorse the views contained within such books.

Yes, it would be making a service available. A service that is already widely available on the internet, or in the library. Hardly one that is lacking at the moment.

5. That it is in the interests of promoting religious diversity and promoting freedom of expression and religion that EUSA do not prevent Bibles being placed in rooms in Pollock.
6. That the University should be a free market place of ideas and as such no view should be suppressed or censored. True tolerance would allow all views a chance to be fairly represented and would not ban the distribution of any books.

Erm, starting with number 5, no it’s not. It’s in the interest of freedom of expression and conscience to allow people to believe and express themselves as they wish in public or private. This is completely contrary to allowing people to impose the Bible onto people who aren’t interested or who hold different beliefs.

As for number 6, the Bible is not being censored. As I’ve said several times now, the Bible is available online and in the library; the University is in fact actively making it available. To claim, therefore, that it is being censored, is nothing short of ludicrous. In addition, the distribution of the Bible has not been banned. The CU is free to, and regularly do, distribute copies of their religious texts. I have 7 copies of John’s gospel given to me by members of the CU. Unless they’ve been taken away since I was last there, there’s a big box of them underneath the stairs in George Square Lecture Theatre, the very building where the AGM will take place! The only difference between them distributing them on campus, and putting them in people’s rooms, is that when they’re distributing them, people can say no. This motion just allows religious groups to push the Bible or other religious texts onto people who otherwise wouldn’t want it.

That any group or society representing any particular point of view who wish to provide literature to be placed in every room in Pollock should be allowed to do so providing the books are made available freely at their own expense.

Oh so we’re not just talking about religious groups? So why don’t we allow the Socialist Society to put a copy of the Communist Manifesto in each room? Of course in response, the Conservative and Unionist Society will want a copy of their literature in the rooms too, and so will any other organised group out there. The University already has this kind of resource available, it’s right next door to George Square and it’s called the Main Library! But that last part, about the books being made available freely “at their own expense” is an interesting addition, I wonder why they put that in? Could it be that they know the CU, with its large membership and funded by the UCCF, is the only group on campus that would be able to afford such a project? Methinks so. More on that later.

The Association resolves: To mandate the President of EUSA to represent these views to Accommodation Services so that the situation can be returned to what it used to be prior to the SRC deciding Bibles
should be removed from Pollock.

You mean returned to what it was before progress was made, right?

Secularists tend to have two responses to this kind of problem. The first, very prominent in the States, would be to allow every group, religious or not, to put their book in the rooms. This is how ludicrous situations like the Washington State nativity scene come about. The second would be to not allow any groups to do it. I favour that option, and here’s why. It doesn’t matter if you give access to all groups, the big fish will always be able to dominate, in this case the CU will be able to put the Bible in the rooms and other groups will struggle. Then we’re back to the situation, where one group is favoured over another, that we were trying to avoid in the first place!

So that is why we shouldn’t pass this motion. Agree? Disagree? Put your comments here!

There are also a number of other motions going through the AGM which are of interest. One is about taking action against Israel, and another is about not giving a platform to discriminatory groups on campus. Maybe I’ll put a similar post up about that one. But regardless of where you stand on any of these issues, go to the AGM and vote! It’s on the 17th November 7pm in George Square Lecture Theatre.


Homeopathy 6

January 24, 2009

Just a quick one before I head out.

Those following the Homeopathy series may remember that the clinic we’re objecting to is at the office of the Edinburgh University Settlement. This is an independent charity linked to the University through which graduates can volunteer in various ways. The homeopath at the clinic is a history graduate. Recently I’ve been emailing EUSA President Adam Ramsay, who appears to be sympathetic to our cause, over who best to contact at the University about this. He, along with everyone else it would appear, didn’t know what the links between the two are, but the best person to ask would be the University secretary. He then emailed me again and advised me that, since the Settlement is a totally separate organisation, it would be best to campaign directly against them, because any complaint to the University is likely to be a waste of time.

So, let’s just recap a little. We have an organisation which has been granted a privileged position on campus (it couldn’t be any more privileged, the office is within the union building), and is seen as a member of the university community (hence their inclusion in the Wellbeing Fair). This organisation is now promoting irrationality at our educational institution, and it seems they don’t answer to anyone! Brilliant!

There must be some link somewhere, else how would they have got the office right there? There are banks which hire premises on the other side of the building but I’m sure this is different. I think the key thing to do is to find out who agreed to have a homeopathic clinic at the Settlement. This person may be able to do something.


Remembrance Sunday

November 11, 2008

I didn’t have time to post this on Sunday, but I think Armistice Day is as good a time as any.

It is vitally important that we remember our loved ones who have died, and particularly those who have died in conflict. You may not agree with the war itself, but it’s not the fault of the troops. Many give their lives for their countries, and those who don’t are away from home, away from their loved ones and in the middle of very hostile situations fighting for a cause which they may or may not agree with, and facing traumatic events risking life and limb on a daily basis. As the saying goes, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

I went to the Universities’ service for Remembrance Day. It was held in the Playfair Library at Old College, followed by a parade around the quadrangle by the cadets. It was a fairly impressive affair, attended by representatives from Napier, Queen Margaret’s, Heriot Watt and Edinburgh Universities. Anyone who’s been reading the blog since its beginning may remember that I was very angry at myself for missing the ceremony last year. I suspect at that time I may have been a lot more indignant at what I saw. People may consider this an inappropriate thing to say in a post about such a somber event, but I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not criticising the act of remembrance, and neither am I criticising the University for hosting such an event, just that the type of commemoration seemed inappropriate. I feel obliged to make some kind of comment, although it is not easy to do so delicately. What follows should not be read in an agressive tone, merely a disappointed one.

What astounded me is that it was explicitly a Christian, and more specifically it seemed to me a Protestant affair (I say that because I noticed the version of the Lord’s Prayer was taken from the King James Bible, widely used by Protestants but not much at all by Catholics). Now don’t get me wrong, every other ceremony I’ve been to has been Christian, but they all took place in church, so I wasn’t surprised. Here, the ceremony took place in a library, at an educational institution which is supposedly secular, taken by a chaplain based at a chaplaincy which professes to serve people of all faiths and none, and none of the advertising for the event I saw suggested that it would have any kind of religious flavour, which is why I was so surprised. This is not a criticism of anyone in particular, but does having an explicitly Christian ceremony not undermine the sacrifices of people of other faiths and of no faith whatsoever?

Remembrance Sunday is widely considered a way of remembering and paying tribute to all those who have died in conflict, not just the World Wars, and not just people on ‘our side’. It is unrealistic to believe that all of those people were Christian, indeed if you go to the military cemeteries in Europe (as I did in the Netherlands in 2005), a large contingency of the headstones bear the star of David rather than a crucifix, and I wonder how many of those with crucifixes actually held religious belief. This website suggests that many Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims fought for Britain too. Equally it is not at all fair to presume that only Christians would like to participate in a remembrance ceremony.

I don’t object to religious organisations holding Remembrance Day services, I openly applaud it. But a secular institution like the University, with such a multicultural membership, shouldn’t have any kind of service other than a secular one. Trawling the internet briefly, I can’t find any mention of any kind of non-Christian Remembrance Day service closer than Oxford, and even that still has Christian blessings. You can blame that on secularists, but in my opinion the University service should be one of them. I had previously been impressed with the University that other official ceremonies had no mention of any God or religious belief. If members of the University want to pray, that’s they’re prerogative, but appealing solely to Christians can only contribute to cultural fragmentation. It appears Remembrance Sunday has become a Christian celebration.

I apologise if I have offended anyone, but if you leave a comment I will happily discuss any issue.