The institution of the university has traditionally been the home of intellectual discussion and political engagement: the student protests of 1968, in particular, stand out to me as one of the moments in history where universities truly took on the role of challenging the status quo. Upon my arrival in St Andrews in September 2020, I was excited to join an intellectually demanding environment, where I would have the opportunity to engage in challenging conversations with people who shared my passion.
I was lucky to find myself living next to a group of people with one of the most diverse range of political opinions that I had ever encountered. In this context, boredom was never a risk. As soon as we felt comfortable enough to reveal our political leanings, politics quickly became the standard topic of conversation. Our discussions could vary from theoretical concepts, such as the divide between capitalism and Marxism, to much more practical ones, such as gender justice.
While having a range of opinions was the grounds for a series of stimulating debates, I quickly noticed that most people started showing an attitude of kinship and agreement with those of similar leanings
. It soon became clear that in this group there was a “left” and there was a “right”. The rhetoric was often the same: left-winged people were seen as extreme, naïve, leaning towards socialism; whereas right-winged people were associated with being old-fashioned, individualistic, and as having too much sympathy for capitalism. The dualist nature of politics emerged in those discussions, with the understanding of current affairs or proposed solutions falling back on well-tested arguments of the respective political factions.
One evening, however, one of the people who was often present surprised me when, in a discussion about education, they raised a proposal I had not heard before: a place-based education system for the U.K. that was not controlled by the central government which followed a curriculum very closely tied to the historical context of local settings. Their suggestion was followed up by other ideas after that, each time providing an alternative vision of how society could be. Most of these suggestions were difficult to define as either right or left. My friend’s approach was different to any other I had previously heard. Rather than subscribing to the mainstream ideas of the right or the left, they allowed their thinking to run free and actively tried to come up with their own solution to their own understanding of political dilemmas. Why had I not encountered this before?
Creativity is often set aside in political debate. People who are passionate about current affairs and big ideas tend to side with a political faction that is able to provide them with a tradition of ideas that inevitably grants comfortableness in a community and credibility. Thinking just about England, Conservatives and Labour dominate in the elections and in the current government. While I am not suggesting alternative parties necessarily need to emerge, the way the system is set up continues to feed us the rhetoric of the “right” or the “left”, despite the fact that individuals often hold views that can belong to either faction. This creates an effect of “analysis paralysis” in which we feel overloaded by information and we get discouraged from taking risky decisions.
I, too, have been guilty of this. If my ideas were deemed “too idealistic”, it was easy to rely on a well-established line of politics, from which I could draw arguments and plausibility. However, I had forgotten that politics is a discourse and that duality is embedded in many Western democracies. Most importantly, I was not pushing myself to create alternative visions of the future that were worth fighting for – such as building my own ideas of how we should tackle climate change, rather than settling for plans that were made behind closed doors in powerful and faceless politicians’ offices. My friend had reminded me that nothing, besides myself, was stopping me from creating an alternative that was worth believing in according to my own standards. In a sense, despite my undergraduate degree in Philosophy, I had temporarily forgotten to be a critical thinker.
Within the current political rhetoric, which manipulates us in thinking that the binary is the only acceptable politics, and in a cultural climate in which “cancel culture” threatens sweeping away those who have plausible and respectful alternative visions for society, it is urgent to remind ourselves that we need to push boundaries and create possible worlds that may shock others. There are very urgent problems that our society must tackle, yet we confine ourselves to the consumption of ready-meal solutions, ignoring the endless possibilities that we can choose from for our future. We need, instead, to be bold and visionary, to think beyond the dualism of the political discourse: in other words, we must be creative in our politics, even if that means going for the road not taken.
BY ROBERT FROST
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The views expressed in the article as the author’s own and may not reflect the values of The Liberty Club