Why the myth of ‘Town Vs Gown’ is dangerous and patronising to us all

Originally published on The Cambridge Student on 08/08/2012

As reported in The Cambridge Student, a University-made video aimed at the latest intake of freshers has been leaked on the internet before it was finished. The catchily-titled video, Cambridge Stay Safe On A Night Out has caused some controversy because one of the gems of advice it doled out was “ditch the gown and the tux” before heading into Cambridge for a night out so you’re not an “easy target” for aggression from the townsfolk. Doesn’t that project a lovely image? Here we are, descending from the towers of our castle (possibly built from some kind of elephant tusk, who can say) down to the village outside the keep’s walls, to indulge a skin of wine and fondle some wenches, when the bally commoners try to pick a fight with us!

“Welcome to Cambridge!” the video could have crowed, “Embrace our ancient traditions! But not too fully, in case you get decked by a prole!”

Amazingly, some of us students have lived in places where street violence occurs (such as, ooh, any city in the country) and are vaguely aware of how to avoid it. However, you can’t knock the video’s intentions. Violence does exist, and the video-makers want to protect freshers from it. Fair enough – even if it is a bit patronising.

However, you might think that they would have learned from recent, well-publicised examples of authority figures advising people to change what they wear in order to avoid violent attacks. Advice that places the onus on avoiding attacks on the potential victim is problematic. The SlutWalk movement, and other campaigns aiming to end the culture of ‘victim-blaming’, have been widely discussed, especially in student media.

However, the video’s suggestion doesn’t just disrespect the potential victims of violence, but the supposed perpetrators too. By intimating that Cambridge residents are likely to hunt out students to mock/beat up/mug, the video patronises students and vilifies local people. As much as it warns us not to behave like Brideshead-inspired caricatures, it stereotypes Cambridge’s many non-student residents as student-hating, violence-prone thugs.

Granted, this very paper ran a news-story last year when a group of students were attacked in a nightclub by four non-students who did seem to be specifically targeting people in dress-shirts, but this story was so shocking specifically because this type of behaviour is rare. Personally I’ve seen more antagonism between Anglia Ruskin and Cambridge students than I’ve seen from ‘townies’ towards students.

One of the brilliant things about going to a non-campus university is that you don’t live in a student bubble devoid of real people. Every day we mingle with people who have jobs and pay taxes. This is a good thing. It keeps us grounded. It stops us disappearing too far up our own backsides and reminds us that after our three years here are up, we’ll be out in the real world like those people.

The idea that non-students are alcohol-fuelled bulls who will charge at the wave of a gown is not only stupid, it is damaging. We can all get along. We’re doing it fine. We manage to frequent the same shops, pubs and cafes that normal people do, day after day!

If the town/gown divide was so real, and crossing it so dangerous, then student unions across the country would be advising students not to wear ‘University Of…’ hoodies and to hide their textbooks inside copies of Nuts. But they don’t, because it isn’t.

It isn’t difficult to get along with non-students. They’re not a different species, a warlike race of Orcs preying on us innocent, book-loving hobbits. They’re just people! Our Cambridge acceptance letters didn’t transmute us into a separate race, and no-one thinks they did, apart from, seemingly, whoever inserted that nugget of ‘advice’ into the video. Interestingly, it was developed by Campuslife, a film company based in West Yorkshire. Perhaps town/gown relations are less cordial in Leeds. I couldn’t say.

Certainly, the film-makers’ hearts were in the right place. It’s just sad that their attempts at good advice instead come across as divisive scare-mongering. Better advice might be “don’t act like a twat when out in public”, a nicely universal maxim that can be applied across the board to anyone, no matter what university they do or don’t attend.

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