Wednesday, February 09, 2005

"Hack" is a four letter word

This particular pejorative, "hack" is something that has been on my mind recently.

Just what is a hack? What are people's reactions to hacks? When does someone become a hack? Why is "hack" used as an insult? Are hacks really people and do they have valid views?

Some time ago (regularly readers may remember this), I had this to say about student reps.

The fact that a few postgrads are involved in factions does not make their views less valid than someone who is not factional. It makes it as valid. To suggest otherwise is not only terribly elitist, but does those people a great disservice.
This was in response to a comment by Matt Belleghem, during the great debate over representative primacy between UMSU and UMPA. Although the point is specific, the theory is general.

A lot of people in student politics (and in particular, certain sectors of the left, on campus and in general) have decided that the views of "hacks" are less valid because of their status as "hacks" than someone who is not a "hack".

Having thus identified an instance where a hack's views are delegitimised, lets pose a few questions.

Just what is a hack?

A hack tends to be a student who is identified (typically self-identification comes into this) as deeply, intimately or routinely involved in student politics. Student politics is the various activities of student union departments, collectives, committees and/or faction or club. Hacks are students who believe themselves to be "informed" or "connected", to be a "face", to be one of the "usual suspects" or that their involvement in an activity constitutes "making up the numbers" or an "obligation".

A hack is often, but not always, an activist of some kind, mostly off-campus. The political activism of a hack off-campus is usually what got the hack involved in student politics. In other cases, a student's first encounter with politics is through a campus club or collective.

Significantly, hacks are not considered to be activists. Hacks have long since lost any intellectual or ideological integrity through their involvement. An activist on the other hand still retains that "purity". Hacks in self-denial will often call themselves activists.

Hacks are contrasted with "normal" students; that is, students who do not regularly involve themselves in student political activities.

When does someone become a hack?

A student hack is a student who has expressed an opinion at a meeting attended by other hacks, or a student involved in a political club or student faction, or both. The former tends to be more important than the latter.

Someone who is in a student faction, attends the odd meeting but does not have much to say, is not a hack. If the listeners believe what is being said to be a "party line", or to be "pushing an agenda", then the speaker is a "hack". Being a "familiar face" comes into this, in particular a "familiar face" associated with known hacks.

An activist who spends a lot of time at meetings can also become a hack; this occurs as above: the moment that they give an opinion at a meeting attended by other hacks.

Ultimately, hackdom is recognition by other self-identifying hacks that you are "one of them". Note that above, in the title of my blog, I self-identify as a "student hack".

What are people's reactions to hacks?

Student hacks are each others worst enemy. Hacks typically associate primarily with other hacks (most hacks also have a cadre of "non-hack" friends, typically left-overs from highschool) but as they say, familiarity breeds contempt. Because many hacks are either opinionated or ambitious or both, they will tend to come into conflict. This nearly inevitably leads to hacks facing off in stouches, to a greater or lesser extent, mostly cross-factionally. Hack's reactions to each other is complex, but is often coloured with this conflict.

"Normal" students on the other hand rarely come into (knowing) contact with hacks, and when they do, it is either during some kind of political activity, such as a rally or a student union election. This contact is often adversarial or polarised. Such contact is often met with varying degrees of suspicion, scepticism or bemusement.

Some student hacks deny they are hacks, but instead call themselves activists. These hacks are the most dismissive of other hacks, because they believe their views to have more creedence or validity than the views of a mere hack. These "activists" exhibit all the behaviour of hacks, but are often not party political or factional. They still spend a lot of time at meetings, associate with other hacks, talk "hack talk", etc.

Why is "hack" used as an insult?

A hack is often used by the hack as a tongue-in-cheek descriptor for themselves.

More often however, being a student hack is an unspoken insult or pejorative, whereby hacks indulge in a form of complex self-loathing in which they characterise their own and others' political involvement as unnatural, abnormal or illegitimate.

"Hack" is used as a juxtaposition to the mythical "normal" student-- the legendary creature that hacks every election try to connect with, try to understand and get to vote.

Furthermore, as above, hacks are placed in opposition to activists-- they could be seen as "fallen" activists, or the opponents of activists. This view is most often held by hacks who call themselves activists.

Do hacks have valid views?


As soon as a student becomes a hack, in the eyes of other hacks their opinions cease having any relevence or legitimacy. A student hack cannot express an opinion that is anything other than partisan, biased or an expression of a party line. Student hacks push agendas or espouse factional propaganda. Their views are utterly divorced from what "normal" students believe or think. Student hacks are disconnected from the broader student body, because they live in ivory towers surounded by "yes-men" and political cronies.

Or at least, that is what some student hacks on the hustings, often so-called "activists", would have you believe.

A ("hack") friend of mine last year expressed disatisfaction at being ignored and dismissed by other student hacks at a meeting not so long ago. He or she noted that many at the meeting thought that he or she was merely pushing a factional agenda (despite, as I understand it, that particular faction either not binding at all, or not binding for that particular meeting). My friend stated that he or she was very unhappy at his or her treatment, as, despite his or her regular involvement in various issues and his or her activism outside of university.

I said to my friend that this was because he or she was percieved as a "hack". In the eyes of other hacks therefore, his or her views and opinions had ceased to have any worth. I noted that this delegitimisation was, in my view, due to other hacks taking the view that anyone involved in politics was no longer a "normal" student and therefore was incapable of independent thought.

I further observed that this viewpoint was, in my view, fundamentally flawed. A "hack" often has access to information not available (rightly or wrongly) to "normal" students. My own non-"hack" friends are often intrigued at the political going-ons at Melbourne Uni, but do not have the inclination to deeply involve themselves; they are quite willing to ask me what is happening and then draw their own conclusions (since they are friends, I don't need to push any "agenda" either).


I note that there is a lot of uninformed opinions about what happened in 2002-04 in MUSU for example; the opinions from "non-hack" students that I've run across, who have only heard whispers or rumours or half-truths are wildly inaccurate, incorrect or fantisiful.

One of the key problems with the activities of hacks is information. Information collects in a few hands; access to the information is not easy, so only those with a peculiar interest actually hunt it down. Most students can't be bothered or don't know where to start.

Access to information being identified as a problem, I would make the observation that opinions are as valid as each other, with the caveat that an informed viewpoint is more legitimate than an uninformed viewpoint.

Trying to ensure that as many people as possible are informed should be a key responsibility of activists and hacks.


  • At February 09, 2005 10:41 am, Blogger Hamish said…

    In your opinion, can someone who has been ever been identified as a "hack" become reformed?

  • At February 09, 2005 10:52 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "Ex-hack" is the best they can hope for.

    Or get elected to parliament: "former hack".

  • At February 09, 2005 5:19 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    There is no chance for true de-hacking. It is like there is not true cure for cancer. You just go into remission and it could come back at anytime.

  • At February 10, 2005 3:50 am, Blogger Nic White said…

    Can you be actively involved in student politics and not be a hack?

  • At February 10, 2005 9:53 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    When you start off in student politics you are clearly not a Hack, it grows on you. Very few are able to aviod being infected. The problem is there is always two sides and very little centre.

  • At February 11, 2005 7:33 pm, Blogger Nic White said…

    haha, I AM the center :D

  • At February 12, 2005 1:21 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I thought, while using a friend's IP and thus under the shroud of anonymity that I'd say exactly what I think.

    Alex, you are not a hack. Do you know why? Because you don't deserve to be. You are a disgrace to your faction, your faction is a disgrace to student politics in general, and the left of student politics in general is a disgrace to Australian society.

    Students do not give a shit about Student Unions. 99% of students do not use their services, but are $400 a year poorer because of compulsory membership of those services.

    This is fucking disgraceful. Just as a Member of Parliament should represent his own electorate rather than his own political views (bravo John Murphy), political hacks and wannabe-hacks (like yourself) should represent the ambivalence of the student population in that THEY DO NOT WANT ANYTHING COMPULSORILY REPRESENTING THEM!

    VSU does not kill Unions - it gives people a choice. It does not sentence Unions to death unless people do not think they deserve to live.

    Is it fair to make people pay a Union's life support when they do not believe in it's right to existence? Of course not.

    Students should be allowed to decide whether student unions live or die. The decision should be that of the entire student population - not those with a vested interest.

    To suggest otherwise is biased and opinionated. Let students decide. Let's put this to a vote and see how much ALL students (rather than ALS and the Hard Left) really care about their Union. What is wrong with expressing democracy?

    If people decide after not joining the Union that they're missing important services, then they'll rejoin - what do you have to hide?

    Meeting with the lefty Liberal members won't help you. Reaching appropriate discource with the student population and convincing them of their need to pay Union fees under VSU will.

    Alex, I know you love Unions. Fine, that's your view and I won't discredit it, despite the fact that you constantly attempt to discredit me. Unions in principle are fine. But if the members of that Union decide that Union should die, then that is the will of it's members. That is democracy. Surely the left isn't against democracy?

    Let's put it to a vote. You guys have the numbers... you decide.

    Either put it to a vote and let it be binding on Melbourne Uni, or let VSU come in, in entirety.

    Lefties, it's up to you...

    I think you know who it is by now.

  • At February 13, 2005 6:50 pm, Blogger Liam said…

    Blah blah blah.
    Anonymity is for chicken-shits.

  • At February 13, 2005 8:21 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Pretty bloody obvious who it is.

  • At February 17, 2005 4:52 pm, Blogger Alex said…

    Dear Anon: I'd be happy to have a referrendum on VSU at Melb Uni. I think students would vote to have universal student unionism.

  • At February 18, 2005 3:45 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You seriously think that the student population of Melbourne Uni - who utterly do not give a shit - when told that VSU means they don't have to pay "that $400 fee" will vote AGAINST that??

    You have got to be joking. Maybe in your own little fantasy land.

  • At February 18, 2005 9:45 am, Blogger Alex said…

    Non-compulsory voting? I've a good idea who will vote and who will win.

  • At February 18, 2005 6:42 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It seems like one referendum in which compulsory voting is fair.

    Let's think about this - if there was a referendum to exempt MU from CSP/HECS charges, by your reasoning, that would fail because nobody would bother to vote.

    Fine in theory, Alex, and fine when it's things like Union elections, but when one's hip pocket comes into the equation, things change.

    As I said last week, if you're really that keen - go and have a referendum. If, like you think, people support compulsory payment of fees then that will be reflected in the result, and you have something to approach the parliamentary bargaining table with.

  • At February 22, 2005 12:38 am, Blogger Alex said…

    It seems like one referendum in which compulsory voting is fair.Wait a moment... you want to introduce voluntary student unionism through compulsory voting?

    Talk about schitsophrenic.


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