07 April 2016

No More Free Expression in Cambridge?

Cambridge University
What is happening to Cambridge University? A few days ago, Jesus College removed a bronze cockerel over protests that the looted sculpture celebrated Britain’s colonial past. Now, students on the Junior Parlour Committee (JPC) at another Cambridge College have sparked controversy.

In an email, the Pembroke College JPC said they decided to cancel a party with the theme 'Around the World in 80 Days', "to avoid the potential for offense" because dressing up could lead to "cultural appropriation."

'Around the World in 80 Days' is an 1873 adventure novel by Jules Verne, a French writer chronicling the exploits of Phileas Fogg as he attempts to travel around the globe in less than three months. It's a classic novel for crying out loud!

The decision caused uproar on social media. Students argued that the party’s theme did not encourage racism, and was instead a way to embrace cultural diversity.

One student wrote on the Pembroke Exchange Facebook group: "Doesn’t any theme contain aspects which could be spun into an offensive costume? . . . This seems overly controlling and a little insulting." This post received more than 100 likes, reports The Tab.

Another student wrote: "I don't feel that dressing up in costumes that celebrate cultural diversity should be reprimanded. Can't we take joy in spending an evening in the national dress of another country? This decision just serves to perpetuate the downward spiral of extreme political correctness that I feel universities across the world seem to be succumbing to."

"I don't really think it's a freedom of expression issue necessarily," Jon Cooper, a History student at Pembroke College told Newsweek.

"It's up to the JPC to choose the theme of the parties they organize. Cambridge is so insular. They [the JPC] don't understand why the decision to cancel the party is so absurd to the outside world. The party with the same theme three years ago had people arriving in costumes that had the clear potential to upset those who might already feel excluded at an institution that has historically not welcomed them. It's not enough to say that this is simply a way to appreciate different cultures, if in reality students are mocking important cultural signifiers," he continues.

"Equally, do we really want a small committee of students deciding whether other students are dressing or acting in an appropriate way?"

"I think an ‘Around the World’ fancy dress party is a wonderful way to appreciate different cultures. It’s such a ridiculous thing for students to get upset about, but it makes sense to us at Spiked because it is indicative of the widespread censorship on campuses," Ella Whelan told Newsweek. "The decision is so regressive and really reactionary."

Whelan is the research coordinator of Spiked Magazine who helped launch The Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR), the UK's first ever nationwide analysis of campus censorship.