A Study of Democracy in the Halls of Residence
Imagine a microcosm of our national political system—a situation without the risk of affecting an entire country for generations to come; a relief from the occasional feeling that our leaders might accidentally press a self-destruct button. Imagine an election for a leader with no real power. An amount of authority so small it’s not worth attempting to corrupt. And a position with no predefined role beyond some vague mentions of ‘Attending Meetings’ and other suitably bureaucratic measures.
I am, of course, referring to the Hall President elections of Uni’s catered Halls. Every year, some number of hopeful politicians and power-hungry teenagers delude themselves into believing that they are either entering a quest for influence, or the equally fallacious belief that they could meaningfully change the system… so, realistically, this is the exact same as our national system. Thus, maybe the lessons learned here can be applied there.
For those who never went to the catered Halls, a touch of background for you. The University has established a system of interaction between management and the residents, which, at least at my Hall (O’Rorke), is done via a system of floor representatives and a Hall President. Following a week of campaigning, there is a debate, and then what amounts to about another week of voting. At the end, the supreme figurehead of the Hall is crowned. Some people have their pride wounded, and then we all continue as if nothing has changed.
At O’Rorke this year we have only two candidates: Tim and John. I don’t believe the irony of having to choose a representative from a selection of two Pākehā males was lost on anyone. But no one else stood, so we work with what we’ve got.
Tim was the first to throw his name in. He’s the country boy from the Waikato, whose whole life was uprooted when he moved into the Halls. Under his campaign he has various photos of a ball he was involved in, therein proving his established pedigree for organisational abilities. Tim’s time to shine was the open debate, proving his debate skills in an informal round with questions from “Favourite colour?” to “How can you make our voices heard?” Tim did admit that it was “a little daunting at first to have to put himself out there to so many people,” but that it was “always fun to have some competitive banter.”
John, mere moments after the official race is announced, throws his name in too. He’s also from the country, a Palmerston North-born, self-described “family man”, who immediately starts printing flyers. Well-prepared for his speech, he led strong, finished with an assertion of his Rice Purity test score, and garnered thunderous applause that could be heard by someone on the sixth floor.
Please note, all names in this article beyond John and Tim have been altered, for fear of the raging partisanism in O’Rorke devolving into something less productive and possibly aggressive. Yet, didn’t I say no one really cared? Well, that might have been a bit misleading. No one will care after, but people definitely feel strongly now.
Rachel*, when asked why she was voting for Tim, merely replied, “Because I know him, and he seems like a good guy. I haven’t met John, but he can’t be as good as Tim.” And, fair enough, it makes perfect sense to vote for someone that you have at least some understanding of the moral character of, and many people vote for people on the basis of familiarity all the time.
Where it starts to unravel, is the belief that in a binary system, there must be one right choice, and one wrong choice. We want to believe in our representatives; we need to give ourselves reasons to trust them and sometimes the easiest way to do that is to break down the other choice. It’s what’s called a false dichotomy or a dilemma in philosophy. We think our options lie in this right/wrong binary. Can’t both candidates be right? Can’t both Tim and John promise to deal with the food issues and make the coffee machine work 24/7? Can’t both be wrong? Yet there are some allegations, plus some (dubious) evidence of each campaign party removing the posters of the other campaign.
On the topic of posters being pulled down, a member of the John campaign, Matt*, was asked why it occurred. It is, after all, a mostly meaningless position with no real power—or certainly not enough to engage in espionage and sabotage for. And after an unconvincing denial, the truth revealed itself: “I just think that [John’s] the right choice, and I can’t let people be influenced out of it by stray flyers they might glance at.”
Is it a valid concern? The belief that stray media, brief flashes we receive in our day-to-day life, could influence how we feel about particular topics? Absolutely. There’s plenty of academic research on it, and plenty of magic tricks that rely on this principle. But ask yourself, what right does an individual have to deprive the population of access to that information? As much as we may be influenced by everything in our lives, it’s only by opening ourselves up to these varying influences that we can form an opinion. We’ll undoubtedly still come to different conclusions following our own experiences, but we must be allowed to do that with as much information as possible.
On the other side of the debacle, in the Tim camp, Olivia* simply declared that “It was only fair, they ripped ours down, so we returned it in kind.” The establishment of an equal playing field is crucial to effective democracy, and perhaps that’s what Olivia thought she was creating when she removed those adverts.
However, I’d argue that what we end up with is not a safe and equal space for logical debate, but a hostile environment. Arguments in the commons about who pulled down the poster; accusations flung across the cafeteria about vandalism. Perhaps the parties have reached an equal state. Maybe they’ve reached some ethically pleasing polity at the expense of some morals. But no one’s been bettered by this. Every poster removed from the other party may as well be from one’s own party, as it motivates retaliation.
All this effort for a chance at vacuous power and the promise of the betterment of your Hall. By the time this article is published, we shall have our president. Be it Tim or John, may they achieve their goals and save our accommodation from party damnation.