By Robyn Banks
Jo Swo, UEA Student Union’s Welfare Officer, bit a bouncer at the LCR. Social media went haywire, the anti-SU brigade had a field day and The Tab published no less than five articles on the subject. A motion was put to union council for a vote of no confidence, which, if passed, would have resulted in her being removed from her position, but the motion was then withdrawn and it was a controversy. In a surprising plot twist an online petition was started to create a safe space for bouncers on campus. Then the council voted to censure Jo, a public condemning of her behaviour which doesn’t directly affect her position. Some people were happy, some people were angry, somebody started another petition to reinstate the vote of no confidence in Jo, and there was apparently a lot of excitement on all sides. One tab article even successfully mimicked a crime thriller with its dramatic depiction of the council meeting. However, after a long time watching from the side lines as one of UEA’s female full time officers was subjected to a barrage of seemingly groundless abuse, one comment in particular stood out to me:
“The hypocrisy of the situation is ridiculous – were this to happen in any other workplace, the employee’s contract would be terminated.”
While it would certainly have been irresponsible for the union to have done anything other than condemn Jo’s actions, it seems to me that this kind of statement is symptomatic of a very particular student mindset. An increasing number of students hold the view that all other students are whining, overly sensitive millennials who exist in a “student bubble” without contact with the outside world. The narrative is always the same- someone would never cope in a real job, or that somebody expects or receives preferential treatment and it’s not fair. Feminism has gone too far, Pride gives unfair preferential treatment to LGBTQIA+ folks and women should definitely hold public positions, but should expect to be constantly attacked for spurious and unsubstantiated reasons because that’s just the real world. Unsurprisingly, a person who holds this view rarely includes themselves in their generalisations.
It should come as no shock that we think this about our peers. The spoiled, entitled millennial has become a prominent pop culture stereotype, and article after article about how difficult millennials are to employ, how sensitive we are and how lazy we are has persuaded us to internalise this criticism. Whether you’re making a complaint to HR about sexual harassment or just trying to mind your own business and bite a bouncer in the LCR, it’s all a bit too liberal for some. Or too draconian, depending on the narrative that fits at the time, but one thing is for sure- it would never be tolerated in the real world, wherever that may be. The narrative about Jo probably goes something like “she bit a bouncer because she hates all men and thinks she can do whatever she wants because she’s a woman” rather than “young person becomes far too intoxicated and does stupid shit”, a crime of which nearly all of us are guilty. I dread to think what they’d make of the time I got way too drunk at project (before your time, young ones) after watching the movie Thor at the cinema, and spent the whole night running away from bouncers while smashing glasses on the floor and shouting “More!”. But I digress.
I’ve written before about the number of holes in the student bubble theory, holes like student jobs, home lives and community engagement where life outside of university almost certainly creeps in, but it’s hard to disagree with the assertion that university campuses tend to be socially liberal. Since leaving university I’ve gained even greater appreciation for the positive and thoughtful atmosphere cultivated there, but also for the ways in which the conservative virtues of the “outside world” have been craftily fabricated. Would Jo have been terminated from any other job? Maybe from some of the more high end jobs where professionalism is more important, but it’s certainly not a given.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember the reaction being this vitriolic the last time an SU officer famously lost his cool in the LCR.
In the jobs I’ve had since I started my first Sunday job as a teenager I’ve seen people yell at managers, be openly homophobic in the workplace and have physical altercations with colleagues and keep their jobs. I’ve heard of managers being fired only after weeks of turning up drunk, and of two managers keeping their jobs after a fight in the workplace toilets. A quick search will find examples of people keeping their jobs after stealing a customer’s data to flirt with them, drunk driving, or selling weed on premises. When Ched Evans was still a convicted rapist, many thought nothing of allowing him to return to work immediately after his prison sentence. If you want to argue that elected representatives should be held to higher standards, consider the behaviour of many politicians today. Mike Hookem still has his job after UKIP’s “handbags at dawn” scandal, and Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson could probably have got away with biting someone by holding a pint and guffawing and passing it off as quirky. Come to think of it, I don’t remember the reaction being this vitriolic the last time an SU officer famously lost his cool in the LCR.
Of course, I’m not (openly) advocating for total anarchy in the workplace, but the certainty and moral soapboxing of the statement about what is actually a nuanced issue rings with the glee of somebody able to turn the tables on the moral preachers and use their own codes of conduct against them. It’s thanks in part to people like Jo that we function in a system which allows us to take people in managerial, representative, or otherwise powerful positions to task and to make such a fuss about the conduct of others, and in the current climate of anti-sensitivity and anti-social justice it’s important that we use this power wisely and consider in which direction we want to take it.
Increasingly, our right to privacy is being eroded, and we do have a right to privacy from our employers. Deciding when conduct outside of work is severe enough for dismissal is complicated, and more companies than ever are toeing the line of social acceptability with draconian social media policies and cyber-stalking of employees free time. But yet, I can find little of this erosion of free speech when it comes to a person’s right to be openly discriminatory at work or harass a woman on social media, despite what I have heard about “PC gone mad”.
Too many of us have internalised an idea of professional perfection, as if to disprove the rumours about our generation’s work ethic and a likely natural response to growing up in an economic downturn, but we only degrade ourselves by becoming this petty about a clearly non-threatening situation. Which would you rather, lenience for your drunken mistakes outside of work, or lenience for open sexism and racism while at work? How is it that we are able to become so upset about the former while so casually dismissing the latter every day? No straight-edge moral soapbox can tower above the issues which Jo has fought for on campus every day, and because of her we have all been better off.
Header Image: Creative Commons – Jesús López.