What is a drinking society?

Drinking societies really aren’t OK at the best of times, and grad students should set an example, argues FELIX STEIN.

access Cambridge Drinking Societies elitismn snobs The Otters widening participation

A few months ago I was asked whether I wanted to join my college’s ‘secret’ graduate drinking society – let’s call it ‘the Otters’. I could not suppress a smile. I guess I had long thought that there was something a little childish about drinking societies and was not expecting graduate students in their late twenties and early thirties to be into such a thing. When I had left my college almost three years ago, only undergraduate drinking societies existed there. Now however, after my return, it took just a few weeks to hear about the newly-founded ‘Otters’ and to be offered membership by the charismatic graduate student sitting to my left at formal dinner.

I asked him what exactly they did and he vaguely explained that they mostly ‘read poetry, got together for drinks and sometimes met up with like-minded people’. While I personally enjoyed all of these activities, I strongly felt that I had to refuse the offer, saying that drinking societies ‘were not my kind of thing’.

During the following weeks and months, I wondered whether I had actually had good reasons to refuse membership. Why did the idea of a ‘secret’ graduate drinking society feel wrong to me? After all, ‘the Otters’ did not seem to hurt anyone. I got along wonderfully with many of them, and if a few grads thought that being part of a drinking society was a worthy way to spend their time, so be it.

I even began asking myself if I had merely declined out of personal prejudice. To me, drinking societies stood for a nostalgic right-wing nationalism in Germany, demeaning hazing rituals in the US and a misogynist lad-culture in the UK. But did I actually have reason to suppose that any of these aspects defined ‘the Otters’? Reading poetry, drinking and socialising sounded rather nice.

More like this...

More like this…

However, I believe that this is precisely where the problem lies. The activities that ‘secret’ drinking societies engage in may often be perfectly innocuous but they do not constitute their defining characteristics.

Take reading poetry for example. While ‘the Otters’ may enjoy reading poems, it would be wrong to call them just another ‘poetry society’. They do not, say, advertise the poems they will read next online so as to attract as large and knowledgeable an audience as possible. Nor do they predominantly recruit those graduate students with the greatest passion for reading or writing. I myself certainly know very little about poetry and when I look at ‘the Otters’’ current pool of members, I have a hard time believing that what unites them is first and foremost a heightened sensibility for the beauty of the English language.

The same is true for drinking and socialising. The city abounds with student rooms, ents-organisers and party services that only exist so as to respond to our desires for fun and alcohol. Since ‘secret’ drinking societies do not publicly advertise what it is they do, it would be quite a stretch to say that they are best defined as just another kind of ents-organisation, merely helping us to meet new people.

...or more like this?

…or more like this?

If neither poetry nor drinking and socialising can define a ‘secret’ drinking society, then what does? I believe that at their core, these societies stand for a desire for elitism, evident in their peculiar mixture of ‘semi-secrecy’ and ‘unaccountable exclusion’. ‘Semi-secrecy’ because everybody knows that they exist but – if people actually cared – it would be hard to find out what it is they do. ‘Unaccountable exclusion’ because they decide who is entitled to join them without ever specifying the eligibility criteria (Do they prefer rowers? MCR committee-members? Tall white men like myself?).

Mix these factors together and you get groups of people that do not do anything in particular but still try to use secrecy and power over other students so as to create a vague sense of being somehow better than the rest. This is true almost regardless of what activities they may engage in. (Perhaps this would not be true if they championed feeding the homeless, for example … Yet somehow, drinking societies focused on contributing to the greater good seem few and far between).

You might think that all of these considerations are not particularly newsworthy. So what if a few more grad students get kicks out of feeling a little more special than the rest? Is that not part of the fun of being at Cambridge? Well, it may be fun for some, but my college is widely held to be one of the more open and inclusive within the University. It is one of a handful of colleges that actually try to break with nebulous notions of elitism and privilege that are off-putting for so many potentially brilliant university applicants.

If we actually believe in the mantras of inclusion and of ‘widening access and participation to the university‘, and if we really want to overcome the cliché of being out of touch with the rest of the world, then we graduate students should lead by example and stop behaving like snobs.