The passing of a motion that prohibited the banning of official Balliol religious societies from attending the freshers’ fair received an enormous amount of media attention, making headlines in national newspapers, and even getting picked up by Breitbart. It was disappointing to see the way in which the issue had been presented: as a malicious and authoritarian JCR committee attacking a religious society on the grounds that they were a harmful presence. We were particularly saddened to see respected and good-willed committee members—friends to many in Balliol—vilified by certain outlets. We would like to take this opportunity to stand with those friends, to give a more accurate account of what happened, and to better understand the outcome of that meeting.
As proponents of the motion, we were keen to acknowledge that committee members have an incredibly difficult job to do—often having to make decisions within a limited period of time, that need to take into account the interests of a diverse student body. In this particular case, those difficulties were exacerbated by the raising of this issue outside of term time. While the committee might have reached a decision which we disagreed with, we acknowledge that all committee members were acting with goodwill, and with the wellbeing of fellow students at the forefront of their minds.
As such, we did not bring the motion in order to point fingers or lay blame. We stand by those JCR committee officials as fellow members of our community, who selflessly sacrifice time and energy to making Balliol the most inclusive and welcoming place it can be.
In this instance, however, we believe that the wrong decision was taken. We did not think that the decision to ban the Balliol Christian Union from the freshers’ fair reflected the JCR’s commitment to non-discrimination of students based on religious belief, and saw that unintended harm had been inflicted on members of our community.
Representing the best interests of students whom one has been elected to serve can be a challenging task, especially if those students are a marginalised or under-represented group, whose very existence as such makes their welfare a matter of particular importance and sensitivity. It is clear that committee members were trying to do just that, but in this instance got that judgement wrong, and by doing so risked setting a dangerous precedent and causing harm to students.
The ensuing discussion that took place at the General Meeting on Sunday was not only civil and respectful, but positive, constructive, and full of hope. Great efforts were made to ensure that the conversation remained policy-focussed, revolving around what precedent we wanted to set for the future—in this case one that values the religious identity of Balliol students, and respects their freedom to express that identity. There was no animosity towards those who were responsible for the decision. An important element of respect for an individual is the acceptance that they make mistakes, and that those mistakes should be forgiven.
Perhaps the principle reason for that lack of animosity is because the meeting was not used as a venue in which students made personal attacks on one another. It was understood by all present that the way to resolve the issue and make positive progress was not to conduct a trial and dredge up individual actions as evidence against the guilty, but rather to engage in dialogue, make genuine efforts to understand the point of view of others, and find the expansive common ground that we share as members of one community. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the issue was handled in the media in almost exactly the opposite way. Journalists will be journalists, and we must forgive that of them, but it was striking for us to see the schism between the nature of the discussion we had here at Balliol, and the nature of the discussion that it provoked in the columns and comments of some online newspapers.
We would like to thank all of those who took part in the discussion, listening with patience and speaking with compassion. We were particularly pleased to accept an amendment that aims to promote further religious diversity and tolerance in the future. Active steps will be taken to encourage the widest possible range of different religious groups and societies at freshers’ fairs in years to come, each one being treated with equality and respect.
Of course Balliol isn’t always a complete paradise, and this certainly won’t be the last controversial issue that we deal with. But in our minds the discussion that was undertaken at last Sunday’s general meeting typifies the tolerant and understanding environment that Balliol students create and sustain for one another, and we are all proud to be part of that community.
We hope that people beyond Balliol can understand this not just as a controversy, but also as an example of the importance of open and respectful dialogue in the face of difficult issues. While we were unhappy with the original decision of the committee, we have been nothing but impressed with the way they were willing to engage afterwards, with a genuine desire to make Balliol a better place.