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Drinking Societies are not the Enemy or: why Liberal Values should matter to CUSU

Cooperation instead of eradication

“This is not your University” – that rather definitive statement graces the title picture of Grudgebridge. In the background, the blurred image of the infamous Crescent talk on Caesarean Sunday. A few weeks later, the Crescents are no more and drinking societies in their entirety are facing an unprecedented existential threat – every grudge another nail to the coffin.

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What's true? What's false? Does it really matter?

This has gone too far

What might have been a good opportunity to push a minority of problematic drinking societies into the spotlight escalated to a flaming dedication to “bring down this ugly culture” – an online witch hunt based on anonymous unfalsifiable allegations and fuelled by abhorrence. Yes, calling out and reporting criminal offences like harassment and sexual assault is important, and it can be difficult for victims and bystanders, I understand, but that shouldn’t find a replacement in a platform created to spread rumours.

Aiming indistinguishably at all drinking societies is unjust and exaggerated, alienating many innocent students. Members are accused of being complicit and guilty by association. There is a certain McCarthy-esque feeling to posts judging members of student committees for being in drinking societies. One especially troubling submission is calling for people to send messages to the medical school and General Medical Council if you know a medic student taking part in “outrageous” drinking soc behaviour – whatever that means.

CUSU picks up the ball

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"Drinking Societies have no place at Cambridge"

"This is not your University" – or how CUSU adapted it: “We do not believe that [drinking societies] have a place in our University”. That was the first unmandated statement sent out by CUSU President Daisy Eyre in reaction to the Grudgebridge campaign a few days BEFORE the meeting of a Drinking Societies Working Group. The starting point of the discussion was clear: Drinking Socs are the baddies.

CUSU is supposed to represent the whole student body including members of drinking societies. However, during said Working Group meeting it became clear that this is not the case – an almost universal condemnation by student representatives. Any speech to the contrary was reacted to with raised eyebrows. The result: the draft of a motion to “mandate CUSU to work to eradicate drinking socs from the University” – eradication is apparently a word which is appropriate to use when addressing a large part of the student population.

Bearing this in mind, how should we judge the sincerity of CUSU’s initiation of a “Code of Conduct for Drinking Societies”? Equally, how should we judge Daisy Eyre’s invitation for members of drinking societies to work with them? Is this Code of Conduct idea sadly no more than a hollow masquerade? It’s hard to imagine a constructive dialogue with someone who wants to see your society “eradicated”.

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Sincere invitation or hollow words?

If that motion is brought forward, there is no doubt it will pass. CUSU council is remarkably homogenous: an echo chamber where dissenting voices have no place. Unfortunately, this monopoly of opinion leads to an increasing sense of arrogant entitlement.

The disciplinary procedure, Divestment, Drinking Societies…the list of issues where CUSU and associated campaigns feel entitled enough to dictate student opinion is long. These authoritarian tendencies completely corrupt ultimately good causes. Hunger strikes, the occupation of Greenwich House, vandalism, eradication – these things will not get any sympathy in the wider student community. At the open meeting with the Vice-Chancellor, a student was heckled and laughed at when he asked whether the University intends to push disciplinary measures on the students who had defaced the senate house. The message is clear: if you disagree with us you are a joke!

Drinking Societies are not the enemy

Put thousands of post-pubertal students into a tiny place, throw alcohol into the mix, and terrible behaviour is sadly what sometimes happens. This will not change if all drinking societies perish tomorrow. Discussing this completely misses the point. Drinking societies can be a valuable ally in working towards minimising the extent of sexual harassment, racism and alike – if you meet them on an equal playfield.

Drinking Societies did not fall from the heavens and then were corrupted by posh private school boys. They were formed by students who wanted to formalise their friendship group, introduce some fancy traditions, have fun with it. Drinking socs are such places where students can leave the seriousness and pressure of Cambridge behind, and do silly things. Silly things mean taping your leg to that of a mate and stumbling from pub to pub; silly things do not mean spiking girl’s drinks or vomiting into post boxes. There is a line that most societies don’t cross, never would, and would call out everyone who does. Instances where the line is crossed should be condemned, and, yes, get the drinking society in trouble if necessary. Although, actions of a drinking soc at Homerton should not affect one at Emma.

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Of course, many drinking societies are exclusive but there is nothing inherently wrong with that. As already described, drinking societies are not mythical entities, they are made up of real people looking for other like-minded people. Criticising that is like running to mummy because the other kids don't want to share their toys. It is very important to understand that trying to force drinking societies to completely change their character is restricting student's freedom.

This is OUR University

The bottom line is – no one has the right to decide whether people should be allowed to form drinking societies. No one has the right to decide who should be allowed in. Nobody has the right to decide what political views members of drinking socs are allowed to have, what they talk about, what they say or do. The University Code of Conduct and British law both set the boundaries of their behaviour. Not Grudgebridge. Not CUSU.

If you want to tackle problematic behaviour, you should get Drinking Socs to work with you. Let’s work together on a proper solution, let’s find a compromise between free speech and funny banter, and calling out racism and sexism, and make sure there is a red line when it comes to serious crimes. Spiking girls and assaulting sleeping men should face consequences with the University and the law. Drinking societies should be reminded to support this and prevent it from happening in the first place.

Stop making foes, make allies instead. Engage, cooperate, and understand that a free society has space for everyone and that we can tolerate differences if everyone plays by the rules.