Scotland’s Student Newspaper.
Over the Halloween period, two University of Chester students caused a small international incident by dressing as the World Trade Center buildings, each featuring a plane mid-explosion crashing into them.
The students who chose this as their costume have apologised and said that their intention “was to depict a serious, modern-day horror that happened in our lifetime,” rather than as a joke. Whether or not this is a lie, their judgment surely must be called into question. 2,996 people lost their lives on 9/11. Over 6,000 people were injured from the attacks, with some living with chronic and debilitating injuries. What is there to be said on the affair other than that their decision was deplorable and insensitive?
The issue of controversial Halloween fancy dress is a national political debate, and it should be. The way people dress on Halloween exposes what expressions of societal biases and stereotypes they find acceptable. The response to anti-social and racist Halloween fancy dress by institutions is also political, raising questions about personal liberty and the degree to which institutions ought to limit speech. The University of Birmingham Guild of Students adopted a zero tolerance policy towards individuals wearing racist or discriminatory fancy dress at Guild Halloween parties. Individuals were turned away if they were dressed as Mexicans, Native Americans and Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Dictator’ character. This stand by the University of Birmingham Guild of Students ought to be praised and emulated by other student associations around the country.
Student unions are by nature political. They exist to advocate on behalf of the interests of students and fail students when they do not. Culture is created in a social context. Student unions are powerful agents in creating campus cultures, and campus cultures obviously feed into the creation of a national political culture. Racist and derogatory fancy dress is a cultural problem. Active political student unions should promote a national culture that is equality oriented and a campus culture that is inclusive, accessible and non-threatening.
Defenders of free speech might object to the University of Birmingham Students Guild’s actions. I sympathise with their arguments. As an American, the comfort with which censorship is discussed in mainstream European political discourse is quite alien to me. This ban, even Edinburgh University Students’ Association’s (EUSA) Blurred Lines ban, would certainly be much less likely to happen on an American campus. That said, student unions are curious institutions in that they are both an advocacy organisation and a business. All businesses express their values through what goods or services they decide to sell or not to sell. Boycotting a certain good or service by declining to provide it for consumption, like EUSA decided to on Blurred Lines, is the legitimate expression of a business’s values. Further, deciding what dress that individuals can and cannot wear on a business’s premises is a legitimate legal decision and an important expression of values.
Student unions should express student values. The zero tolerance policy for racist or derogatory fancy dress is a tool in the war of ideas that student unions can use to affect campus and national culture. A culture permissive of racist and derogatory Halloween fancy dress is a culture that tolerates racism and xenophobia. And these have no place on campuses in Scotland or the rest of the United Kingdom.
University is often a critical time where people develop and consolidate their political beliefs. Whether we find examples of individuals dressing as Mexicans, or going in blackface as Trayvon Martin, or dressing as the World Trade Center buildings mid-attack, we cannot deny that Halloween is a platform for stereotyping, bigotry and intimidation. Creating a culture that is explicitly inclusive and anti-racist should be a top priority for every campus institution, including societies, but especially a representative and political student union.