A tweet from Arts Representative to the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Igor Sadikov, reading “punch a zionist today,” has been subject to intense controversy for inciting violence against Zionist students. Thus far, the debate surrounding the tweet and, in particular, Sadikov’s interpretation of Zionism, has been understandably divisive and heated. Without minimizing the gravity of the issue, the question of the appropriate definition of Zionism is rooted in a deeply complex and sensitive ideological and geopolitical debate, for which student forums are not always the appropriate venue. Regardless of the issue at stake, however, as influential figures and the representatives of a diverse constituency, student representatives should be held to a higher standard of conduct than others. Students must ensure that their politicians meet this standard while representing student interests responsibly and productively.
When taking on any job, one accepts the responsibilities and expectations attached to the role. For student representatives, these responsibilities include being cognizant of the influence of their position and faithfully representing their constituents. These expectations are substantial, as are the consequences of failing to meet them.
McGill’s Student Code of Conduct, which Provost and Vice Principal Christopher Manfredi evoked in an email condemning Sadikov’s tweet, affirms that it is unacceptable for anyone to incite violence against a group or individual. While every student is equally bound to the Code of Conduct, leniency when addressing its violation varies. Student representatives are afforded positions of power so that they might affect positive change on behalf of their constituents. While this influence is most obvious when acting in a professional capacity, it inevitably extends to campus discourse in general. Whether through a statement in a council meeting or through a personal tweet, when a student representative chooses to speak, they cannot forget that their voice and their message are amplified. Should their message be an incitement of violence, they will face consequences from the appropriate institutions.
Student representatives must also be mindful of their mandate—that is, to effectively represent student interests. With a society as large and diverse as the McGill student body, and a system of representation embodied in individuals rather than in parties, the idea of perfect representation is an illusion. A representative’s views will never wholly reflect those of every single constituent, nor should students expect them to—everyone is entitled to his or her own political opinions. However, a student representative’s personal opinions should be expressed with careful regard for their role as a representative. Holding different views from a peer is one thing—violently denouncing a group that one purportedly represents is another. To make a statement that not only disagrees with, but endangers a particular group within a constituency, is a failure of representation.
When a representative fails his or her constituents in these ways, they must be held accountable—but this process must occur through the appropriate channels. In the case of Sadikov, the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS), the SSMU, and the McGill administration have taken steps to this end: the AUS has formally requested his resignation, and Manfredi released a statement condemning the tweet and hinting at disciplinary action. While a motion to impeach Sadikov from the SSMU Board of Directors has failed, the possibility and process to do so remains open.
Students have demanded that Sadikov face formal consequences for his tweet. Students can and should hold their representatives accountable for their actions. Steps on both sides, however, must be taken carefully and responsibly. In addition to widespread backlash on social media, Sadikov has received threats of violence. Inciting violence against Sadikov violates the Student Code of Conduct in the same way that his tweet did—whatever the debate, advocating violence from either side is wrong and narrows the space for safe discussion.
Students should take to the institutional channels available to hold their representatives accountable, such as messaging representatives directly and submitting executive reviews. These steps should be taken when student representatives fail, of course, but also before that point. It is a representative’s responsibility to reflect student interests and values; as constituents, it is students’ responsibility to continuously hold their representatives to these expectations. It is only through such mutual and ongoing participation that democratic systems of government, such as SSMU, can function.