Every guy is in a version of Exeter’s racist group chat, whether they admit it or not
You can’t pass it off as ‘boys being boys’
You could almost hear the click of group chats being deleted as the "Exeter Five" were exposed, the university law students caught sending obscene racist messages down a society WhatsApp group, full of n-words and rape jokes.
Lucrative grad schemes have since been lost, suspensions from university handed out and social media accounts deleted. To them, in the privacy of their group chat, it was "just a bit of banter" at its worst. It's unlikely they'll take the chance with a tasteless joke again.
While it will have only have been the truly deplorable group chats deleted, many guys will have scrolled through the horrifically racist screenshots and vaguely recognised the anything goes tone of the conversation.
The honest truth is that most boys will be part of their own "Dodgy Blokes Soc", the name given to the group chat used by the Exeter law students.
A space for tepid, largely unfunny banter where you can pretty much say whatever you want, with very little chance of repercussion.
Boys' group chats of course exist on a sliding scale. The outrage and unacceptability depends on how offensive the things being said are and the overall context of the chat.
Alongside the Exeter law students, other brazen examples include the racist computer science course chat in Sheffield and the group of boys who shared disgusting insults about a Bournemouth fresher they used to go to school with.
A racist joke is a racist joke, and the more shocking cases will always make the headlines, but your guy mates will be members of subtler, less outrageous versions. In between discussions of whether to go out tonight or whether anyone needs anything from the shop, the chat will occasionally descend into trading one particular currency back and forth, that only has value in the boys' group chat: shock humour.
An academic at Oxford explains this is a trust exercise for the fragile male ego: "Do I trust you not to say the mean things I'm saying about other people?". Professor Deborah Cameron says this belongs to the same family of behaviour as the trust involved when guys take turns given each other a gentle rinsing from time to time: "Do you trust me when I say we're friends in spite of the mean things I'm saying to you?".
It's another tale of toxic masculinity, a dick-sizing contest of who is brave enough to say the most offensive thing, and it is prevalent throughout male friendship groups. Racism, sexism, ableism, as long as it's a taboo topic it will do the job. Who doesn't have that one friend who sends a Harvey Price meme down the chat from time to time?
But who are these boys? For girls, they are your guy mates, your best friend's boyfriend. They are usually pleasant, would never normally say anything racist or sexist to someone's face or to someone they didn't know, but there is an unspoken sanctity to the boys' group chat. Usually, these are your closest mates, dobbing them in would be unspeakable no matter what they're saying, which only breeds the toxicity.
What is the excuse for making racist and sexist jokes? "There wasn't anyone in the group chat to be offended by what I said" or "in the context of the chat it is a joke intended to shock, obviously I don't mean that and wouldn't say it seriously."
"I would like to make it publicly known that I do not honestly believe any of the things I have said." says Matthew Bell, apologising for the racist messages he sent down the Exeter WhatsApp group. The law firm Matthew was set to join on a grad scheme next year have now revoked his job offer, calling the messages "indefensible and vile".
People may say "how can we start policing what people say in the comfort of their own WhatsApp groups?" That's probably because they'll never understand what it feels like to receive racist abuse. If you're white the only thing you'll be able to relate to when racist messages are leaked is the shame of being caught out – you won't think back to the time you were racially abused. What's a joke to you is deeply offensive to someone else.
We're too quick to pass it off as "boys being boys" or to accept racist or sexist jokes as just jokes. An uncomfortable truth is every boys' group will take a turn – obviously with varying levels of offence – but it exists universally.
Not every boys' group chat will reach the horrific levels the "Exeter Five" managed, but the currency of shock humour that has no place in your large, mixed sex group chat, is alive and kicking in your average all-male WhatsApp or Facebook group chat.
Yes, it's all fucked up, but as these exposés appear to increase in volume the tide will turn. Arsalan Motavali, the Exeter Law student who exposed the racist group chat, cited Rufaro Chisango, the girl who filmed racist chanting outside her uni halls door in Nottingham, as his inspiration for doing what he did.
I’ve had to suffer with this alone for over 3 months, following @rufarochisango_'s experience at Nottingham Trent – I’ve finally decided to expose the racism that I’ve experienced at @Exeter. pic.twitter.com/a5kdTgTl1r
— a~m (@arsaIanm) March 19, 2018
Just how you and your 14-year-old mates used to use "gay" as an insult in the playground but don't now, this will happen to your dodgy blokes group chat. It's a question of naivety, whether you have grown past weird trust exercises.
After a whole day of rolling coverage of the "Exeter Five", me and two former uni housemates were trying to think back and remember what the worst thing that had been put down our boys' group chat, either by us or someone else. If one member of the chat decided to trawl back and find an idiotic remark one of you had made, you could be fucked. That's the reality of the situation now, and we should welcome the death of the offensive boys' group chat.