By Tom Colsy
In the wake of Manchester Student Union’s controversial ban on clapping – something which some Kent Union bosses are reported to have ‘seriously’ considered imitating – our university made national headlines after plans to ban sombreros, cowboy outfits and dressing as a vicar were revealed by the Canterbury Journal.
Following the media storm, students have answered back. A campaign to reject the proposals amassed 250 supporters in just 24 hours and continues to grow.
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So what was so controversial and newsworthy that it captured the nation’s attention?
Where to start!
To begin with, the policy was inconsistent. The guidelines told students to avoid ‘cultural’ costumes, but highlighted Greek, Roman and Bavarian costumes as acceptable. Kent Union’s student nightclub, The Venue, has previously run Oktoberfest-themed events, welcoming somewhat poor imitations of cultural dress in good fun.
The guidance seemed to equate blacking up or donning Nazi uniform with dressing as a cowboy – presumably to protect any campus Texans with a nervous disposition, afraid to leave their dorm lest they become subject to relentless ridicule of their proud cattle-herding culture.
Dressing as a Tory was strictly prohibited, but no mention was made of turning up as a socialist. Adorning oneself in the garb of the Prophet Mohammed was forbidden, but the policy lacked critical detail on dressing as Moses, Jesus, or Guru Nanak.
In the face of seemingly overwhelming ridicule, Kent Union pointed out that the policy was not yet formally adopted and the document was in fact a draft proposal sent out for consultation with student groups.
It defended its position by stating their objective was to make campus more ‘inclusive’ and expressed dissent and ‘shame’ that it had been so obviously misunderstood.
There is no doubt in my mind that staff at the Union acted with the best intentions. They have responded fairly and democratically towards our opposition and our campaign.
However, the Union’s confusion over why the proposals were taken so badly reveals how overly socially-progressive, liberal attitudes can thrive and multiply within a small bubble.
At this point it’s necessary to make a distinction between the students and their institutions. The bubble that gave birth to these proposals does not exist campus-wide where a diverse range of attitudes exist – often similarly aligned to the views of the wider public.
There is a clash in attitudes between the Union’s desire to progress, innovate, and change, and many of us who have grounded and firm views of how society and certain traditions should remain.
We feel that, despite their noble aims, the proponents of the Halloween costume rules have become desperate in their attempts to seek out racism, discrimination and prejudice where there is none. They would have us believe we are all subconsciously subjugating and hating one another.
A spot of reflection and self-awareness in the pursuit of improvement is no bad thing, but creating a climate in which peers persecute each other for the perceived crime of social impropriety and cultural intolerance is inherently damaging.
Shaming an individual as a racist for wearing a sombrero or accusing a costume-vendor of cultural appropriation is socially divisive and has unintended consequences. Incriminating the girl dressed as a nun for the heinous crime of cultural insensitivity actually dilutes and weakens society’s laudable attempts to stamp out genuine racism and intolerance wherever it occurs.
Our campaign, supported by the Liberty Union, academics and hundreds of students across campus seeks to eradicate the perception of our Union – and by extension us – as snowflakes.
Despite the Union’s claims that the proposals are just ‘guidelines’ the fact remains that students found to be in violation of the guidelines may face formal investigation and censure. Societies such as ours could have our funding cut if our members are found to have contravened the rules.
The Union claims its document has been taken out of context and misunderstood. We say they have discredited our university and turned us into a laughing stock.
We wish to see our university succeed as a centre for academic freedom and new ideas and we reject the notion that campus should become a ‘safe space’ that panders to an increasingly less challenging, overly-protected ‘snowflake’ world.
As Chris Barnard, co-founder of Liberty Union, says: “We, the students, are not made of snow.”
If you are a UKC student, you can support the campaign by signing the petition here.
Tom Colsy is a current UKC student and president of the Liberty Union.