Spiralling out of control

May Bumps, Cambridge: are students losing their edge?

I was wrong. I admit it. Only a week ago I praised the student protests among the dreaming spires against such wicked colonialist figures as Cecil Rhodes and Queen Victoria – commemorated in Oriel College, Oxford, and Royal Holloway College, London respectively – and the famous cockerel, one of the looted Benin bronzes, at Jesus College, Cambridge.

I was indulgent. I like to see young people feeling strongly and protesting. The worst thing that we can wish in the young is an apathetic acceptance of wrongs, even historical ones.

Now though, I’m starting to change my view. Not entirely: I’m all in favour of student protest, as I’ve said. But I’m afraid they are now becoming so obsessive about the need not to offend culturally or historically that they’ve lost their sense of humour.

It started, perhaps, with this new phenomenon (at least, I think it’s new) of “no-platforming”. One of the early headlines on this was created by Germaine Greer last autumn: or, rather, by students at Cardiff University. Thousands of students signed a petition demanding that the university cancel an invitation to her to speak, because she had expressed some fairly trenchant views on transgender issues.  Immediately branded as transphobic, she faced a ban (but ultimately gave her speech under high security).

I couldn’t believe it. In my youth Germaine Greer was the strident voice of feminism, speaking out against gender oppression and demanding equality. She was a protester, an activist, a trailblazer. But the current young generation now deems her intolerant.

Greer claims her views on transgender people are “opinion not prohibition”. She is critical: but it is surely worrying that, rather than engaging in argument with her, even in passionate and high-octane disagreement, Cardiff students preferred to attempt to silence her.

It’s getting worse. Cambridge, in particular, is famous for its summer balls, and their major bashes are often themed (as well as raising money for charity). But they too currently face bans. One, themed as Around the World in 80 Days, based on Jules Verne’s novel, was felt to risk partygoers dressing up as people from races other than their own. This might be culturally upsetting and even insulting to those races, it was felt.

Next a Japanese student spoke out against a Tokyo to Kyoto ball, for similar reasons.

Can we not dress up any more? Is fancy dress now a thing of the past? To be sure, when poor old Prince Harry was photographed (years ago, now) in a Nazi uniform, it was generally considered a highly inappropriate form of fancy dress for anyone, let alone a prince.

But hold on: I’m going to Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado at the Theatre Royal in the summer. That will be full of opera singers dressed as 19th Century Japanese courtiers. Is that also culturally patronising and insulting?

I wonder if it’ll have to be rewritten, though I’ve no idea where you would start. Besides, the whole point of G&S is that, whatever the setting, their operettas are clever satires on the political system and foibles of the 19th Century. So in the Mikado’s court we can see a thinly disguised parody of Westminster and British politics.

Did I use the word British? On Tuesday I read that the section of Keele University’s students’ union which is in favour of this country exiting the European Union will be only muted in its support of leaving, because it has a problem with the word “Britain”.

What I love about the young, both as teacher and more generally, is that they tend to have a mischievous sense of humour, and are as quick to laugh at themselves (most of the time) as they are at the contradictions they find in the institutions in which they learn, schools and universities, and among the adults who so frequently control their lives.

My message to the young: by all means protest; by all means feel strongly. But whatever you do, don’t lose your sense of humour.

That, right now, seems more at risk than anything else.


  1. Absolutely right – this humourless attack on free expression is deeply unhealthy. One side note – it isn’t the Remain side being refused registration at Keele for mentioning the word “Britain”, it’s the Leave side.


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