Take out the trash talk

Insults directed at student candidates makes campaigning inaccessible

Personal attacks against candidates running for student leadership positions are discouraging to current and future candidates.
Personal attacks against candidates running for student leadership positions are discouraging to current and future candidates.
Photo: 

Mike Young, ArtSci ’15

Political campaigns for student leadership positions are hard.

But they can also be among the most invigorating and enjoyable things a student does during their time here.

I’ve been there. Last January, as I began my campaign to become Queen’s next Rector, I ran from class talk to class talk, to booths, meeting students and drinking as much coffee as I could handle.

For me, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, regardless of the result. The campaign itself was fun and I regarded it as positive, constructive and forward thinking.

There was a great deal of respect maintained throughout the campaign between myself and the other candidates, and this respect has sustained since the election.

It’s become evident over the past few years that my story isn’t true for everyone at Queen’s who runs in elections.

In the midst of a political campaign you’ve thrown yourself into, winning at all costs can seem like the only option. But throughout particular campaigns at Queen’s over the last few years, those costs have outweighed any possible perceived benefit.

Some of the discussion I’ve heard and read during this year’s elections period has been made up of personal insults directed at candidates.

This negative discourse is creating a poisonous environment for candidates and voters alike. It discourages potential leaders from running. It needs to improve, because if it doesn’t, we’ll fail to properly inform voters and attract the best possible candidates.

Running parallel to the Rector elections last January were the AMS executive elections, which consisted of two teams and six incredibly passionate leaders that ran in a very public campaign.

As these teams emerged, so did an anonymous blog that focused primarily on the character of candidates, picking apart certain individuals.

A climate was created in which the health and wellness of candidates were strained and their resolve tested. It became more about making it through to the end of the campaign in one piece than about delivering the ideas they’d worked on for months.

Factors like this blog can rob a candidate of the desire to put themselves out there for fear of persecution and negative attacks. It’s important to remember that candidates are students, too.

I don’t think the individual or individuals who created the blog should be automatically regarded as evil people.

It’s largely the product of a culture of political campaigns we’re subject to that consists of attack ads and dragging people through the mud. Anyone who has followed a major election in Canada will know what kind of ads I’m referencing.

We’ve been conditioned to try and prove someone we’re running against is immoral, incompetent and inferior, rather than proving our worth or that of the candidates we support.

This year has had similar issues, particularly involving discourse surrounding the ASUS executive candidates. We’ve seen personal attacks on both sides of campaigns, rumours being spread or speculated upon and, at times, a distinct lack of positivity.

We’ve seen incredibly negative comments posted online on Twitter and the Journal’s comments section.

At last Wednesday’s ASUS executive debate, there was a comment about “binge eating cookies” that ended up being used on both sides to vilify the other.

ASUS Vice-Presidential candidate Brendan Goodman was slammed on social media for saying something he didn’t actually say. There was a lack of understanding as to where the comment originated and why it was mentioned.

On the other hand, the comment itself took Presidential candidate Brandon Jamieson’s words out of context to make him look insensitive.

Instead of focusing on the answers to debate questions, the discussion following the debate was centred on this “controversy”.

This issue was only exacerbated by anonymous comments on the Journal’s website, such as “Goodman's accusation that Jamieson was making light of eating disorders when Jamieson said that he likes to ‘binge eat’ cookies is perhaps the single dumbest thing I have ever heard”, posted by user “OneHandsomeSheep”.

Attacks on character from both sides leave me as a voter with a frustrated, bitter taste in my mouth.

The vitriolic nature of political campaigns is completely inaccessible to voters. I want to know what each team will do for me and what I can expect from them if elected.

Baseless attacks and accusations make elections a less comfortable space for voters to actively engage with. They make it harder to learn what each candidate has to offer.

This system of negativity makes it less likely that viable and quality candidates will put their names forward. As a student body that participates in a negative discourse, we’re telling potential candidates they should prepare for public ridicule and attacks if they declare their candidacy.

Not only will this deter quality candidates, it also prevents a larger and more diverse group of students from running.

If we want more people to run, we’re going to have to do better than what we’ve seen this week.

We have to continue to be critical of ideas and candidates, but in a way that challenges ideas and doesn’t attack people.

It shouldn’t be hard to do, but it’s going to take buy-in from candidates, campaign teams and those watching from the outside. Be perceptive to ideas, have an open mind — and stay constructive.

Mike Young is Queen’s current Rector.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.