Seriously? Victimising Other Students is Not Letting Your Hair Down

The Sun-Herald newspaper has a column called “The Loaded Dog” that allows readers to explore the controversial (‘explosive’) issues of the week. Given that scandal that is still ongoing involving St John’s college, this is their question:

Does the university college system need a complete overhaul or should young people be allowed to be let their hair down in peace?

For the love of all that is good and educational, could there be a more disingenuous framing of a serious incident that has had and continues to have a major impact on young people? This is an ugly and false dichotomy that is yet more of the nonsensical victim blaming that is often used by bullies and their supporters. “Can’t you take a joke?” “I didn’t mean anything by it.” “You’ve got no sense of humour (,love)” “They’re just letting off steam.” and, my favourite piece of rank and festering non-contribution to any discussion that involves the male gender acting atrociously:

“Boys will be boys.”

No, rapists will be rapists. Thugs will be thugs. Bullies need victims but, of course, many people who are bullies don’t like to be called bullies and, especially when their own glittering futures may be at stake, they most certainly don’t want it recorded anywhere that their actions may be down to anything other than “they were asking for it” or, perhaps, “we’ve always done it this way.” Don’t say “Boys will be boys” to excuse the bad behaviour of yourself, your friends or your relatives. It’s a lie that we need to leave behind.

There is nothing about what happened at St John’s College that was even vaguely on the scale of “letting one’s hair down”. If an individual student drank too much and threw up on a tram – eh. It’s not attractive but that’s a dumb thing people do. If two students are caught having consensual sex on the statue of the (insert statue’s name here), well I hope that they practised safe sex, but that’s pretty much their business when they’re of age.

When over 30 students stand around kneeling people and coerce them into drinking something that is deliberately disgusting, to punish them, we are seeing abuse. When furniture is burned on campus, it is a message of defiant and repellant strength – tyranny signalled by flaming Ikea. This is about the victimisation of the weak. People do not “let their hair down” by organising gang rape or the Jonestown massacre. “Letting your hair down” is about you, not how you abuse other people.

Let’s not forget that the victims, like most abused, are more likely to inflict the same thing on the people that they gain control over. For the rest of their lives. This is never what we want for our children, our students or our citizens. Let’s be honest about violence, intimidation and thuggery. Let’s stop blaming the victims. ‘Let their hair down in peace?’ – for shame, Kate Cox, to put your name to such weasel words. Let me rewrite the sentence for you:

“Does the university college system need a complete overhaul or are the actions allegedly carried out at St John’s College an acceptable and expected part of University Life?”

I cannot quite believe how much writing I’ve managed to do on something that should have been a complete no-brainer. Students were identified as taking part in a heinous act, part of a series, that nearly killed someone. Why are we still talking about this in terms other than “the matter has been addressed, the victims are safe and we have changed the situation so that this cannot happen again.” I’ve got to the stage where I’ve realised that claiming that you can’t make punishments stick because you can’t identify the ringleader is very, very weak beer as an argument.

You lead when you step up and take control of a situation. If you hang back when something bad is happening and you could have acted to stop it, or withdrawn your participation, then you are complicit. If you were bullied or coerced into doing something then I have sympathy for you (obviously, or my anti-bullying stance makes no sense) but the students who have continued the acts of vandalism and anti-social behaviour at St John’s, and are proudly wearing t-shirts celebrating their acts,  are either some of the most effectively brainwashed people on the planet or they are active participants.

The Vice Chancellor the University associated with St John’s has already taken the slightly unprecedented step of contacting all of the students to reassure them and ask if any of them need help. Well, that’s nice and obviously well worth while but how could a College so closely associated with the University have been allowed to get to the point of this year’s activities in the first place? If I genuinely thought a student was at risk, you’d have a difficult time shutting me up. My academic freedom comes with a cost, that it must be exercised in the interests of my students, my colleagues and the truth. Let’s hope that this is the last that I have to write on this except for solid positive developments in the near future.


3 Comments on “Seriously? Victimising Other Students is Not Letting Your Hair Down”

  1. It is nice of the vice-chancellor to contact students, but it would be the right thing to do if he/she had set out to make sure these behaviours were not allowed through tacit approval of the system.

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  2. Francis Vaughan says:

    Back in 1993 I spent two weeks staying at St Johns. (I was visiting Sydney Uni for research work, and the secretary of the department decided that this would be a perfect place to have me stay, after this visit I stayed in a nearby hotel.) Back then it seems things were much the same. I remember one night being awoken by the thundering footsteps of drunken students on the corridor, and the next morning a seriously hungover crowd came into breakfast, one member sporting are rather poorly executed spiral shaved into his hair. The brought about a 15 second rebuke from the principal seated at the high table. And that was it. It was a strange place to say the least. I remeber the curious affectation of an Oxbridge college that pervaded the place. Academic dress was to be worn to meals, but there was no control of how shabby a condition it was in, nor what it was worn over. Everyone stood as the high table entered. Being a Christian (Catholic) college grace was always said. Most amusing was the stained glass window with the shields of Oxford and Cambridge universities flanking that of Sydney Uni.

    What makes very interesting reading is Peter Cameron’s Finishing school for blokes. Peter was principal of St Andrews College, another Sydney uni college, which is essentially a clone of St Johns, but Presbyterian. Peter fought a long and ultimately losing battle to stamp out exactly the culture we see at St Johns. He was eventually forced out from the position by entrenched powers that had exactly the same disinterest in the problems as those that run St Johns now. Indeed the book presents a carbon copy. Peter felt that the core problem was that running a male only university college created an environment where the students – mostly country lads who had attended male only private schools simply never grew up. However it seems that the issue is wider than just insular males. But the problem of students that step straight out of school into another environment where they continue to be cosseted and immune from the consequences of their actions still creates adults with the ethics and maturity of children.

    I suspect that there are similar issues still at St Johns. The mainstay of students residing in St Johns is no doubt much the same as before. A difficult is always that students are technically (although clearly not mentally) adults. There is no mechanism of discipline bar expulsion, and that will be subject to legal challenge by any student that wishes to dispute it. It may simply be that the institution of these colleges is just past its use by date. These colleges were set up to provide a sanctuary for country lads studying in the big city, a sanctuary with proper pastoral care, and with clear duty of care to the students. The problem seems to be that neither the students or those that run the colleges see it that way any more, and have adopted Animal House as the exemplar of the colleges rather than the Oxbridge colleges that they aspired to emulate.

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  3. […] of my students commented  that I must have been really angry when I last posted about the “letting their hair down” comment and, yes, I was furious. I don’t want anyone, anywhere, exposed to this kind […]

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