It is now well known that last term Lancaster had a scandal, the ‘White Tee Shirt’ social. Now I know this has been talked about so much that any more conversation appears to be redundant. The reason I’m writing this article is because snow sports was not a one off, with recent revelations about a group chat of Warwick University students who discussed female students in racist, sexually aggressive and deeply discriminatory ways and a wave of anti-semitic white tee shirt socials at universities in Coventry, Newcastle and Plymouth. This shows that this is not a Lancaster specific issue. It is not lost on me that the images taken of all these groups of people are predominantly white men, only one, a blue tee shirt social in Plymouth, featured a female student. Now this trend does not speak to the idea that all white men are anti-semitic or think that discussing women in terms of sexual assault is acceptable, but it does reveal a growing trend of blatant actions of hate in the guise of banter.
When these socials happen they give the wider student body an insight into a toxic facet of ‘lad’ culture that is rooted in the idea that trying to outdo how edgy one can make their ‘banter’ as a way of earning respect from one’s peers. The so-called humour involved in this process is, in fact, really a way of asserting the idea that some people in life are supposed to be the butt of the joke. Be those people religious minorities, people of colour, women, rape survivors or any other people from traditionally disenfranchised groups. That is what remains central to all of these socials and leaked group chats, those of us who already exist in society with less privilege than the patriarchal projection of the privileged cisgendered heterosexual white man, are subject to the ‘edgy’ humour of people who have never experienced the social disadvantages inescapable for so many of us. It is pronounced more strongly by the virtue that these socials often end in lengthy and lethargic disciplinary hearings, and reduced punishments. An example being the men involved in the Warwick group chat having their 10 year campus ban dropped to 12 months.
Some may argue that the naming and shaming of the individuals involved in these various situations is punishment enough, curtailing their future opportunities. We must however remember that the individuals involved aren’t children but grown men who should be aware of the weight behind statements that make light of rape, the Holocaust or racism. In the guise of humour or a half baked protest about hate speech as free speech, these words damage the ability for those they are targeted to navigate their place in university. The reduction of punishments and the lethargic process remind me all too much of the Brock Turner rape case at Stanford University in California. While Turner’s crime was far more serious, he still only recieved a sentence of six months in prison that was reduced to a three month sentence. It seems that when privileged men commit crimes they get a figurative slap on the wrist and it seems we all are conditioned to move on and forget as quickly as possible.
So why is it that this lad culture of edgy offensive humour and acutely problematic sentiment is suddenly coming to light? I feel that in a world where a majority of us, regardless of gender or race, are becoming more and more aware of the discrepancies in society, some people in traditionally privileged positions of power are subconsciously asserting their social dominance over those who are only now beginning to gain access to platforms to talk about their experience as important. Not everyone involved in these socials or on these group chats is thinking about it in such a way; in all honesty I think it would be a compliment to assume some of those involved are so politically aware. I am aware that some individuals generally do have a darker sense of humour, I myself have one, but there’s a certain line that shouldn’t be crossed. There’s humour and there’s an assertion of one’s own privilege to ‘joke’ about issues that have never affected you.
That is the rub in this ultimately: without assuming the life experiences of the people involved in these situations, I question how much direct experience of racism, or homophobia, or sexual assault, the mostly straight white men who write on these tee shirts and send these messages in their chats really have. As someone who has experienced what it is to be sexually assaulted, I can promise you that discussing rape in the way the Warwick boys did exhibits how little understanding they have of the devastation sexual assault brings to the lives of those who have had to endure it. Further, these news-making circumstances are an exposure of what we can all infer is a deeper and hidden undercurrent in some groups of students who behind closed doors are holding intolerant views that come from a place of toxic white masculinity, a version of manhood so narrow it must attack different versions of personhood that do not correspond to the rigid expectations toxic white masculinity places on all of us.
While as I have stated, this analysis can not apply to everyone who is involved in these socials and these group chats, one must ask where do we draw the lines? Where do we say that one has gone too far and where do we say that edgy humour is benign? We need to remember that while white men make up the majority of the students involved in these socials, it does not, as so often we forget in the conversation about the social progression of disenfranchised groups, make white men our enemy. We as a collective, all of us as students, need to be aware that the minority of students who hold these views are a part of the university space, and that empty vessels do tend to make the most noise. We also need to be aware that our continued support of the groups and students affected makes the impact of such sentiments of hate less and less impactful.