Gold Idea entitled “The Guild should buy a helicopter” was suspended on Monday 4 December and ultimately closed, following complaints about its promotion of views related to right-wing extremism. The Idea, which suggests what is presumed to be a humorous tone that “a Guild helicopter could be used to promote its education survey from the skies, in medical emergencies and as a tool for learning”, then goes on to insinuate that “Problems could ‘disappear’ overnight”. Due to resulting connotations the Idea was deemed inappropriate on grounds of promoting extremism, whereupon it was suspended pending investigation. This instigates review by the Student Change Manager, Student Ideas Officer, and VP Activities; after undergoing this process the Idea was eventually closed for good.
The Idea was interpreted as referring to Operation Condor, colloquially known as the ‘Caravan of Death’ (Caravane de la Muerte), a helicopter-based Chilean death squad active after the country’s 1973 coup which saw the rise to power of a military dictatorship including General Augusto Pinochet. According to the Guild, action was taken against the Idea “due to parallels with [Pinochet’s] regime”. According to the NGO Memoria y Justica, the Caravane was responsible for the murder of at least 97 individuals, incidents for which – amongst various other human rights violations – Pinochet was indicted in 2002. The idea may also refer to so-called “death flights” (vuelos de la muerte), a method of extra-judicial killing in which victims are thrown from aircraft, typically into large bodies of water.
Death flights have seen news coverage recently, as two Argentinian pilots received life sentences last month for their part in the murder Uruguayan political activist Esther Ballestrino. The concepts of vuelos de la muerte has gained traction in alt-right communities, with numerous references to “Pinochet helicopter rides” as a method for removal of opposition. It is this link to extremist ideas which led the Idea to be removed.
This is not the first time that Exeter has seen evidence of extremist views expressed in University space. Other examples include a swastika being found in Birks Grange accommodation last February, and anti-Semitic slogans used during a white t-shirt social in September 2016. However, this instance differs in that it raises questions regarding how these views present in relation to Guild adminstration.
Firstly, it raises questions as to what procedures are in place to safeguard against harmful action and misuse within such systems as Student Ideas, where students should be able to effect serious change in their Guild. Secondly, the functionality of processes like Student Ideas requires consideration when it repeatedly includes both absurd and unconstructive submissions, of which this particular Idea is an extreme and particularly unsavoury example. Finally, this leads to consideration as to how the Guild can remain representative of the student body when dealing with such issues.
According to the terms and conditions of Student Ideas, the system falls under the Guild’s Safe Space initiative “as far as is possible”, i.e. in an advisory capacity. The initiative takes the form of a behavioural code, of which the first item is to “enter this space with a commitment to mutual respect, mutual aid, anti-oppression, advocacy, conflict resolution, non-violence, participative democracy, and community building”. Violations of this code may result in removal of both Ideas and comments, if that action is necessitated by an elected officer.
Reference to extra-judiciary killings in the “helicopter” Idea can, therefore, be easily interpreted as violating terms and conditions of the Ideas system – hence its removal, which followed the relevant procedure as laid out in the Ideas Process. Commenting on the removal, the Guild said that: “The Students’ Guild is proud of its sector leading Student Ideas platform and the changes it can make to campus. We have a stringent process of reviewing Ideas before they are published online – in this instance, the subtle nod to Chilean dictatorship in the 1900s was missed but flagged via our complaints process which acts as a check and balance. We encourage students to scrutinise and comment on the published Ideas and to put themselves at the centre of change.”
Despite this “stringent” reviewing process, the Student Ideas system is regularly inundated with presumably humorous suggestions. Other Gold Ideas, live at the time of writing, include a “robot library police officer to kick out first years”, “Dig a big hole and move the physics building underground”, and a Forum Hill ski-lift. There is a procedure, under the Complaints system, to counteract “trolling” – however, the sheer volume of these extraneous ideas may suggest that said procedure is not sufficient. Speaking to Exeposé, the Guild stated that “‘silly’ or non-serious ideas are an inevitability and it encourages many students to get involved in commenting and voting on the Ideas. While we ask that Ideas are considered before they are submitted, and there is a review process before they are published, the ‘silly’ ones drive engagement with the platform – and some of them are quite fun to read.”
This has certainly proved to be true, and ‘silly’ or sensational Ideas do help to raise awareness and promote use of the platform. This occurrence does highlight the need for measures to safeguard said democratic process against abuse; whilst there is Guild procedure in place – and it has here proven effective – it is necessarily subjective. Yet despite such mishaps, the Student Ideas system is an excellent way for students to easily make their voices heard and engage in the democratic process. It is an important tool in ensuring the Guild is an open and representative body – but, like so many things at university, it just has to be used responsibly.