By Ashley Husband Powton
As an aspiring young academic and a proud graduate of the University St Andrews, it is with a heavy heart and bitter disappointment that I feel the need to express the hurt and offence I felt upon hearing one particular element of the graduation address delivered to all guests on Thursday afternoon.
Quietly inspired by two humbling, respectful, solemn and dignified Laureation addresses and acceptance speeches, Dr Bettina Bildhauer followed with a valediction which soon descended into insult and ill-advised and insensitive politicisation of the ceremony.
Given the ritual and solemnity of the occassion, and the gravity and integrity of the addresses we had just heard, it took some time to process the magnitude of what had been suggested – that I, my family, friends, and hundreds of thousands of others, were taking the same path of nationalism that produced Nazism. It was only our acceptance of the solemnity of the occasion that kept those of us deeply insulted in our seats.
Dr Bettina Bildhauer, the academic entrusted to deliver my graduation address, used the occasion to mount an ill-informed attack on the views of many present and beyond, which was thoughtless and offensive. Furthering her own narrow political agenda, she warned the audience of the dangers of nationalism, asserting that it always develops into xenophobia.
Whilst I understand that her personal context fosters a distrust of nationalist movements, this should neither encourage nor allow an understanding of all nationalisms based upon one model. However, referencing her German birth and nationality, we were instructed only to look to Germany for lessons from history.
I firmly believe in Dr Bildhauer’s right to freedom of political expression, but there is a time and place for such expression, and a graduation address is not it. Personal political opinions, of whatever nature, are completely out of order on such a formal and public occasion, and Dr Bildhauer’s pontification was unacceptable. The inappropriate politicisation of Thursday’s graduation ceremony will always leave a bad taste in the mouth of many present.
What should have been a celebratory and lighthearted day for me, my family, my Scottish friends, my English friends, my German friends and their families, was fraught with tears, anger and disbelief. I have counselled a close German friend and his parents, who were made to feel deeply uncomfortable. Without the persuasion and support of my family and friends, I would have left straight after the ceremony, missing the opportunity to share the positive relationships I have developed during my time at university.
I stayed, but my graduation day, which should have been a happy culmination of four years of study, is forever tainted.
Many academic colleagues and students, regardless of political allegiance or persuasion, have voiced their dismay at this part of Dr Bildhauer’s graduation address. Not only was its divisive politicisation of a graduation ceremony completely inappropriate, but the views which she asserted were extremely hurtful and offensive to many. Perhaps more than anything else, however, Dr Bildhauer’s remarks equating modern Scottish nationalism with fascism demonstrated just how far removed she is from the reality of what is happening in Scotland.
It is a serious lapse in scholarly rigour to equate all forms of nationalism, past and present, with exclusion and xenophobia. Such reductionist thinking and homogenisation runs contrary to the rigour of analysis and questioning she had earlier implored graduates to exercise.
It demonstrated a a disappointing lack of critical thought, research, evidence, insight, thoroughness, and balance, the very values instilled in, and demanded of, us as her students. This extreme generalisation exposed a concerning lack of awareness or understanding of the distinct historical, political, social and economic conditions which define, and have defined, diverse concepts of nationalism and nationhood across many continents and centuries.
To list only a few examples, the nationalism of US President Woodrow Wilson, founded on the ideal of democratic self-determination, was not xenophobic. The nationalism of Nelson Mandela, driven by emancipation, democracy, a powerful sense of social injustice, a vision of equality of the races, and characterised above all by a commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation, was not xenophobic. The nationalism of modern Scotland, as anyone who has any knowledge of the campaign for independence is aware, is not xenophobic.
The clear and overwhelming tone and drive of the YES campaign is an inclusive, forward-looking, internationalist and civic nationalism, whose goals are self-determination, democracy and greater social justice. Ever more urgently, this nationalism is about rejecting the very real xenophobic, anti-immigration, homophobic and misogynist rhetoric dominating the UKIP-driven Westminster political agenda.
The current Scottish government is actively and vocally in favour of greater immigration. Majority Scottish public opinion is clearly and consistently pro-Europe. Scots Asians for YES, Polish for YES, Africans for YES, England for YES and YES LGBT list amongst the many groups campaigning under the banner of Scottish nationalism this year.
It was indefensibly inappropriate of Dr Bettina Bildhauer to use a public graduation ceremony to air her political views, thus compromising the admirable and proper neutral position of the University of St Andrews. It is ignorant and mistaken to equate the growing civic, internationalist, democratic and inclusive nationalism in Scotland with the creation of outsiders and xenophobia. This equation denigrated an open and inclusive Scottish nationalism which celebrates diversity, a nationalism which I and many others am proud to hold.