By Sylvia Nissen
One of the unexpected parts of interviewing students about political action was how uncertain they were about the perspectives of other students.
As part of a series of in-depth interviews I undertook with students in 2015, I asked fifty-nine students whether they thought other students shared their political views. Only thirteen agreed that ‘most’ did. These students typically argued that ‘people mostly believe the same things’ but that ‘we just have different paths to get there’ or that ‘they have different ways of doing that’. All but two of these students were highly active in clubs on campus, and they included eight of the nine students who were active in youth wings of political parties.
For the remainder of the students, however, there was much greater doubt of the political views of other students. For starters, nearly half were not sure what other students thought. When asked whether other students shared their political perspectives, these students said that they did not know: ‘It’s hard to gauge’ (Mary, Auckland); ‘I have no idea’ (Lily-Jane, AUT); ‘I wouldn’t really know’ (Jane, Massey). Students remarked that they knew what their close friends or their ‘bubble’ thought, and that they therefore tended to ‘assume’ that most students thought the same. However, these students were also quick to suggest that this perceived consensus was ‘probably an illusion’ (Pricilla, Lincoln), or something that was ‘nice to pretend exists but probably doesn’t’ (Greta, Otago).
The doubts students described went further than uncertainty, however. Nearly two-thirds of students – 64 percent – said that they felt that their political perspective was in the ‘minority’ on campus. This perception is somewhat ironic: a majority of students considered themselves to be in the political minority. These examples are from students who indicated support for both left-wing and right-wing political parties:
Kurt (Massey): I don’t think that many students share my views, I’d say I’m in the minority. But I don’t really know.
Sue (Canterbury): I feel like a minority! Because I surround myself with people who are like-minded I sometimes think we are a majority, you know?
John (Massey): Um, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was in the minority […] but I haven’t talked to many people about it.
Carly (Auckland): Um, it is hard to tell. I wouldn’t be in the majority group, definitely.
Other students on both the political left and right, said that they felt politically ‘isolated’, ‘on my own’ and ‘a bit like everyone is against you’.
These views took me by surprise. In other parts of our conversations I had asked students about the issues that concerned them, and despite the diversity of the students I interviewed, both demographically and politically, there was considerable overlap in their responses.
Part of this uncertainty of the views of other students seemed to stem from a gap between their expectations of university and their actual experiences. Students spoke of ideals of what being at university was ‘supposed’ to be. This quote from Felicity (Otago) was typical:
It’s university, right? It is supposed to be this awesome time of getting engaged with all these crazy ideas and debates. I guess just being super-engaged with politics. That’s what happened in the past, and you hear about it happening in other places around the world, too.
Despite these expectations, all but two of these students said the actual experience of university had fallen well short of these hopes. Students might have hoped for engagement, but were confronted by the seeming norm of student ‘apathy’. Nearly two-thirds of students I spoke to considered most students to be politically ‘disengaged’ or ‘indifferent’ – even if the views they expressed in interviews suggested that they were not.
The students who reported disappointment at student ‘apathy’ were also not all left-leaning, highly active students as might have been expected. Rather, these students also included those who were not active in any clubs on campus and students on the political right. Take James, for example, a right-leaning student:
If you think about students around the world, say at US universities, I can never imagine students here rioting as they did in London a few years ago. I can never imagine them sort of doing the big sit-downs and protests that you see in the States. And I don’t know if that is necessarily all of New Zealand or if it is confined here… But it just doesn’t seem to happen like I thought it might have.
Similar to James was Luke, a right-leaning engineering student who was only peripherally involved with one club on campus. After arguing, ‘[t]hat’s what students do: they protest’, he described his regret that, compared to other democracies, New Zealand student politics ‘is dead here compared to over there’.
Students’ uncertainty of their political community also seemed to be reinforced by doubts that today’s students fitted common stereotypes of students as more ‘left-leaning’ than the rest of society. Many students volunteered they felt these typecasts no longer applied. There was a belief that students might be more socially liberal, but they doubted that necessarily applied to economic views. These responses were typical:
Chelsea (Auckland): I guess the general perception is that at university everyone is more liberal than in the rest of the world, but I don’t know if that is true necessarily.
Trevor: I think there is quite a popular perception of students being a really distinct political segment […] But I don’t know if the student vote necessarily is as much of a coherent thing as we like to think it is.
Instead, student views were believed to ‘probably’ reflect the wider population, with a high proportion of students on the political right as well as the political left.
These doubts present a challenging backdrop to student political action. Students questioned their political engagement, but in a context in which they were unsure of what their peers thought. Most considered themselves in the political minority and some felt politically isolated.
I asked additional questions about whether, and in what ways, this uncertainty affected their political action. For eleven students, these doubts did not appear to substantially inform their political activities. They spoke about feeling confident talking to other students about their political views, even if they did not know what other students thought: ‘[I]t’s never bothered me’.
Most students, however, said that they were cautious revealing their political perspectives to other students whom they did not know well. These students explained that they were ‘not confident’ defending their views, or that ‘it makes me nervous’. There was also a worry that, in raising their views, discussion might become ‘confrontational’ and therefore ‘awkward’. They did not want to ‘muck up friendships’, or ‘you don’t want that friction, so I just don’t go there’ (Annie, Otago). Another concern was that they might inadvertently offend others: ‘[I]f I don’t support the majority opinion then, you know, it might not sit well with some people’ (Andre).
Especially striking were conversations with twenty-two students who described their ‘bubble’ of friends providing a political ‘safety net’. These statements are typical of these students, and include those who indicated support for both left-leaning and right-leaning political parties:
Finn (AUT): I’ve got my close group of friends and I kind of stick by them. I guess I just know where I stand with them. I don’t really talk about politics outside of that; you don’t really know what you’re going to get otherwise.
Carly (Auckland): I’ve definitely got my little bubble of students and then I try to only socialise with them because otherwise you get a bit depressed.
Lily (Waikato): I have a really close bubble of friends, which is great because we’re quite like-minded about this sort of stuff. And then I don’t have to deal with all the others.
Outside of their ‘bubble’ these students spoke about being much more reserved and ‘guarded’. They described ‘keeping my views to myself’, or said that ‘I don’t really tell people what I think’.
It could be easy to dismiss these comments as small-minded or lacking in courage. But as the sociologist Nina Eliasoph reminds us, it can take a lot of hard work to produce ‘apathy’. In her fieldwork with volunteers in a US suburb, she mapped the numerous but implicit techniques that these citizens and their organisations used to avoid talking about politics.
Thinking about apathy as hard work makes an important intellectual shift. As Eliasoph explains, it moves our focus from the failings of individuals towards the processes that cultivate or impair our ability to talk, imagine and act together. It becomes less about the static content of ideas, and instead about the context in which they are formulated and shared.
In my study, what was striking about students’ reluctance to talk about politics with other students is that it was at odds with some other parts of our conversations. Many students valued connecting and having meaningful interactions with others. When asked what issues mattered to them, twenty-three spoke about concerns that social connection and cohesion was fragmenting. Many spoke about valuing the capacity to forge social connections with and between others. There was also the plethora of informal and small-scale actions that many students described undertaking day to day to connect people.
Students also tended to be enthusiastic about how diverse the student body was, and expressed enjoyment of connecting with others that had views different from their own. In interviews, I asked forty-four students what they ‘liked most’ about being at university. Of those respondents, over half – twenty-three students – identified the ‘diversity’ of the people on campus. When asked to elaborate, many of these students spoke about valuing ‘having conversations’ or ‘discussing’ issues with those with ‘a range of views’. Some relished having their perspectives ‘confronted or challenged’.
Others spoke about enjoying the mutual understanding that could develop within a diverse body of students. One example is two Muslim students, Abe and Lee. They spoke with frustration about dominant narratives in the news and social media that ‘there is always fighting between religious groups’. They explained that they had sought to respond to these assumptions by ‘trying to establish a connection’ and ‘common ground’ with students of other faiths. They offered the opportunity to ‘talk things through’ and ‘listen to one another’ by ‘having a cup of tea’ and ‘inviting people from all sorts of communities to come to our place’.
Extract from Chapter Four of Sylvia Nissen’s new BWB Text Student Political Action in New Zealand. More information on the book, and links to purchase, can be found at bwb.co.nz.
Sylvia Nissen is a Lecturer in Environmental Policy at Lincoln University.