Is time up for drinking societies?

Will Bennett 12 May 2018

Grudgebridge, a forum for Cambridge students to post anonymous ‘grudges’ about other students, published a statement yesterday which declared its dedication to “taking down drinking societies”.  It has opened an anonymous space for testimonies about all incidences of prejudice.  The page has been accused of vigilante brashness in its war against this “blight on access” and its demand for anonymous testimonies is self-evidently a flawed way to lobby change. 

Grudgebridge laid itself open to criticism by trying to fight “the old-boys club perception” of Cambridge as well as combatting the “classist/racist/transphobic/misogynistic/homophobic views” which may be held by some society members. 

The two might be linked, but the argument that drinking societies limit access is true of hundreds of Cambridge traditions that can make it a daunting prospect for applicants.  It is far more likely that the now patent bigotry slinking around the darker corners of some drinking societies will end their hegemony, via a formal abolishment or an exposure of indeceny á la Crescents. 

Granted, they are fun places to be too and not all the members are guilty by any means.  However, the drinking society framework is an environment where this kind of thing is simply more likely to take place.  Regardless of a group's function, be that drinking or tiddlywinks, if it escalates the frequency of offensive behaviour amongst its members, the general consensus we tend to reach is that they should pack it in.    

Consider what would have happened if Grudgebridge had tried to call out all the boat clubs in Cambridge.  Boat clubs are also common to almost every college and their members have also been known drink alcohol together in their spare time.

Grudgebridge could not have written this post about any other group of students and garnered such a miscellany of horror, whether you think its mission is well-calculated or not. If the boat clubs had the same testimonies alleged about them, colleges would be investigating and ejecting students from the premises faster than they can see off a bottle of Oyster Bay.  The reality is that stories like the ones we are seeing on Grudgebridge don't seem to be blossoming in any other corner of Cambridge.  

This is the menace of drinking societies, which is too often obscured by arguments about access.  Bad as these problems may be, the criticisms about access are criticisms of the University as a whole.   Drinking societies do have a financial threshold.  A £20 swap, sometimes plus the cost of alcohol, isn’t cheap.  Networking happens, fines can be humiliating and people can feel left out.  None of these are always true.  Blanket statements about all drinking societies naturally raise hackles.

This conversation about all the horrible ‘exclusionary’ drinking societies is generally defined by personal anecdotes.  We tend to think of our own story of derision or euphoria as the conversational trump card whether for or against their existence.  The drinking society member has never seen an example of bad behaviour at a swap and the non-member never quite puts their finger on why they think the societies are so abhorrent.  ‘Its exclusive, its lame’ usually rank highly. 

Sometimes those things are true, or maybe the person in question failed initiations or their ‘chat’ didn’t quite qualify them.   It is easy to make it sound embarrassing to be in a drinking society in these terms but the reality is that people aren’t abashed.  Identifiable students pose for The Daily Mail as part of their identifiable drinking societies. 

Again, its not all the time and its certainly not everyone, but Grudgebridge have shown that drinking societies are forums where prejudiced behaviour is simply that much more likely to take place.  Few people vocally foster that environment, but that is simply the state of affairs.  At the moment, every year a small handful are caught out and swiftly abolished and fledgling drinking societies are hardly sprouting up to fill the void. 

The Crescents are just the most recent group who have failed to just be a little decent.  As the conversation gradually heats up, it could be an unfortunate twist of events for the societies’ notorious taggers-along, who seem to eventually get branded by the puzzling vulgarity of some bolshier society members.