The University of the Easily Offended
Meet the rugby-playing student at a London university, forced to recant after sticking up an 'offensive' poster advertising an English Party.
Amongst the colleges that make up the University of London, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) is renowned for its multicultural atmosphere and laid-back, boho-chic, bong-hugging students. Yet when the SOAS rugby club put up posters for an ‘English’ party a couple of weeks ago, all hell broke loose.
As part of Freshers’ Week, the rugby club put up posters in the Junior Common Room (JCR) advertising ‘The English Party: No Bongos, No Shisha, No Arabic music, Free food.’ Those putting up the posters were approached by a number of students who criticised the poster for being discriminatory and racist. The complainants then proceeded to call racial affairs officers, branded the rugby team captain Tim McLellan a racist, and asked for a public apology. All the poster implied was that this would have been a typical English rugby party rather than one of the classic Arab or African-themed SOAS union parties.
I asked McLellan exactly what happened. ‘No one who approached me at the time actually said that they were personally offended, and instead criticised me on the basis that the poster was likely to offend others’, he said. ‘They also said that they felt the poster alienated non-white and foreign students.’ So it seems the students who protested weren’t even offended by the poster but rather were worried sick that the poster might cause offence to some other vulnerable students. Talk about patronising.
One student I spoke to, who preferred not to be named, alleged that one of the elected officers of the student union had spearheaded the irrational torrent of abuse against McLellan, labelling him a racist and then refusing to hear him out. It seems that, in the absence of any real political substance to student politics today, some student activists point fingers at whatever they see as a sign of hidden racism or prejudice and define themselves against it: this is more about proving how anti-racist and right-thinking one is, rather than redressing wrongs where they occur in the world. Student ‘activists’ of this breed would do best to re-examine their own political mission and the values they stand for before accusing others of being guilty of invisible sins.
The offending poster
Such was the furore caused by the English Party poster that McLellan was pressured to send an email apology to the entire student body. In it, he spelled out what would have seemed obvious to most people familiar with SOAS’s reputation: that the party’s theme ‘was intended as a play on previous SOAS socials, which are regularly themed on African or Asian cultures’. Apparently, some SOAS students had failed to understand that the poster’s aim ‘was not to alienate or discriminate but rather to express that this party was, unlike most SOAS events, going to have a more mainstream vibe’ and that ‘the choice of the word “English”, which I now regret, was not intended to mean that it was a party for white English students but was rather intended to express that the party’s vibe reflected England’s mainstream culture, which in itself is not racially exclusive.’
When did students start feeling offended by invitations to themed parties? No one in their right mind would have thought the word ‘English’ in this context had any racial or discriminatory connotations. Using this stupid logic, if an English-themed party can be banned because of connotations of racial purity, Arabic-themed parties could just as easily be banned on the basis that they might condone Islamic fundamentalism. The ‘English Party’ was a bit of a pisstake out of the normally overtly multicultural social scene at SOAS. When a poster designed to get people to a party, and also wind people up at the same time, can be banned and ridiculed, the question must be asked: what in the world has happened to students’ sense of humour?
Of the students I spoke to on the SOAS campus, none seemed to have been offended by the poster; most thought that it clearly been intended as an alternative to classic SOAS party themes. In fact, most students seemed quite surprised by the idea that a poster could cause offence at all. James Whelan, who is studying economics, told me: ‘It was obvious that that there was no intention of making racist slurs. I would not abide racism, but one has to apply common sense. Is there really any way in which a racist poster would be brandished around SOAS?’
History student Alex Pinkerton said: ‘I thought the English Party poster was quite funny. I didn’t expect anyone to have a problem with it. SOAS is quite reactionary in enforcing one mindset even if no one was genuinely offended.’
It’s a really bad sign of our times when a progressive and liberal college like SOAS starts banning party posters on the grounds that a few self-righteous, moral posturing do-gooders have decided that the posters are potentially offensive or discriminatory. Such censorship is apparently acceptable even if no one has been offended – worthy student officials can simply feel offended on behalf of invisible others who are supposedly too weak to speak up for themselves. As in the case of Merton College, Oxford banning the word ‘gay’ (1), it appears that in British universities today, it is enough for a few students to shout out ‘offence!’ for bans on posters, parties, societies and words to be brought into force – even when the majority of students think these posters, parties, societies and words are not problematic.
The English Party fuss can be seen as precisely the result of multicultural attitudes at SOAS. It shows how official and enforced multiculturalism on campus does not lead to harmony, but rather to clashes between ‘cultural identities’ and competing demands for recognition and protection. In the case of the English Party scandal, a few students threw up their arms against a poster because they saw it as symbolic of some sort of hidden racism against other cultural identities. The SOAS affair shows in microcosm what multiculturalism is really about, and what it leads to: symbolic clashes for recognition between competing identity labels.
Another interesting aspect of the English Party poster scandal was the focus on public shame and confession, where the ‘sinful’ had to redeem themselves in the eyes of the university and the student body. In this new order, where offence is equated to sin, culprits must expiate their guilt in a very public ritual before they can be reintroduced to ‘civilised’ society. When I asked McLellan why he sent out an apology for the poster to the entire student body, he explained: ‘I really didn’t expect such a reaction to the poster, it was intended as a joke and, if anything, a dig at the SOAS union who always sponsor Asian or African-themed parties with bongos, shishas, and so on. So I sent out the apology to show people that I really didn’t mean to offend anyone.’
It is clear from the conclusion to his e-apology that McLellan had been helped by his apparently more ‘sensitive’ peers to see the alleged evil of his ways. The email apology says: ‘Several students approached my colleagues and me in the JCR and at the time I was very reluctant to apologise for the poster. I now regret this course of action and, having calmed down, I can now see that the correct approach would have been to have apologised without hesitation for any offence, which was completely unintentional.’
The idea that we should apologise for all unintentional offence, or for ‘hidden prejudice’ (so hidden that even the holder of the prejudice is apparently unaware of it), is ridiculous. The reality of life is that people will often be offended, but this does not mean that we should all submit to the contemporary mentality which deems offence as the worst possible sin. This case, where the imputed crime was a laughing matter, shows how prevalent and forceful this mainstream orthodoxy has become today. It is the element of confession and conversion to the orthodoxy on offence which makes the SOAS episode particularly scary. It is no longer enough for people to be punished and socially sanctioned – transgressors must be forcibly convinced of the evil of their words and turned into fervent adherents to the new dogma before they can get on with their lives. This is, perhaps, the most pernicious thing of it all: welcome to the offence lobotomy.
University was once a place where young people became adults, free to think for themselves, to negotiate relationships with others, to offend and be offended, and to argue their case both in lectures and in the student bar. Now, the current demonisation of offence on campus treats students and young adults as vulnerable idiots who must be protected from jokey party posters or the words of big bully boys by all means available. This infantilises students, rather than allowing them to learn, grow up, experiment, test out their arguments and discover how to stand up for themselves and their beliefs.
As economics student James Whelan put it: ‘When there is so little room for enjoyment, at the fear of offending others, then the university experience stagnates. University is quickly becoming yet another sterile institution, of which we already have too many.’ Party on, dude.
Maria Grasso is researching a DPhil on the decline of political activism in Western Europe at Nuffield College, Oxford University. She is speaking at the sessions Rebels without a cause and Revolting students at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.
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