It is hard to exaggerate the public humiliation which has befallen Edinburgh University over the last twenty-four hours. Across the nation, wherever the news has reached people, they have chuckled or grimaced or rolled their eyes. In my own experience, the commonest reaction has been: “Those students really are fucking idiots!”
This song and dance naturally begins with a song.
Cast your mind back to the first time that you ever heard Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” How did you feel? Were you outraged and astonished by the lyrics? Of course not – the song is evidently meaningless. Yet there are some songs which the infrastructure of playing songs massively overplays, and after six months of hearing “Blurred Lines” in every café and nightclub, the weaker amongst us have finally cracked. Its nonsense lyrics have acquired a hallucinogenic meaning: it “promotes rape.” Last weekend the Edinburgh University Student Association (EUSA) banned it from all of their venues. The Tab broke the story on Thursday and most of the national media followed a day later.
To be fair to EUSA, they have waited a least a whole semester since the interim interdict disaster (in which they took legal action to destroy thousands of copies of the Student newspaper) before reminding the nation of their existence once again with another act of censorship. In the words of EUSA’s vice president Kirsty Haigh:
“The decision to ban ‘Blurred Lines’ from our venues has been taken as it promotes an unhealthy attitude towards sex and consent. There is a zero tolerance towards sexual harassment, a policy to end lad culture on campus and a safe space policy, all of which this song violates.”
If you have never heard “Blurred Lines” before, and you are of a certain age, you might be guessing that this song is rather like The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” which had earned similar opprobrium back in 1997. Far from it – “Blurred Lines” is being regarded as so sinister because it is so normal. Aside from the cute beat and Pharell’s gigantically camp dancing, the video is no different to half the RnB music videos from the 1990s.
You might counter that normal people are clever enough to see that the “Blurred Lines” video is pure fantasy. It shows three middle aged men leering over some sexy models – nobody in their right mind would look at this and think it a representation of reality, or a vision of the ideal society. To argue that this video has anything to do with rape is to grotesquely trivialise the reality of sexual violence. But EUSA’s logic only really flourishes on a level of insanity. The idea that a student union can control how people think by removing a pop song from a nightclub playlist is a million times more fantastic and sinister than Robin Thicke’s dream world of submissive beauties in their knickers.
I might be wrong. Perhaps Hugh Murdoch, the president of EUSA, feels personally more sexist or laddish after listening to “Blurred Lines” and this is why such a dangerous song needs to be banned. Or perhaps he only attributes these feelings to what an extraordinary EUSA document about “Lad Banter on Campus” terms the “significant proportion of students and the wider population [who] hold dangerous victim-blaming views about women who experience rape and sexual violence.” I should explain that Hugh Murdoch can only stand for the EUSA presidency once. Never having to face his electorate again, he can freely insult them by pretending that most of them are so dysfunctional that they need him to help correct their attitudes to women. “Blurred Lines” is in this respect an opportunity for him and the EUSA class to exhibit their decency and power.
EUSA’s latest censorship has attracted widespread mockery, but the bans begin to stack up after a while. Edinburgh University is starting to emit a distinctly illiberal odour. Last October a Politics and International Relations Society event was ruined after the guest lecturer – the Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub – was chased away by a mob before being allowed to utter a single word. Next came the banning of the Sun newspaper from all EUSA outlets because this paper is famous for (but not unique in) featuring topless models. Students cannot decide for themselves that Page 3 is wrong because they are apparently children. EUSA’s self-appointed parents must literally take the decision out of their hands. The latest gimmick is much pettier but this somehow makes it even worse. No detail is too minor to be immune from EUSA’s censorship.
So far this weekend I have heard various people laughing about “feminists” making fools of themselves, but I am increasingly unnerved by how cosy feminists are with banning things. Censorship can never be on the side of women because it represents a denial that they are completely adult. Paternalism can never be feminist (the clue is in the title). EUSA will not allow you and me to decide for ourselves not to read the Sun or to stride off the dancefloor during an allegedly sexist song, because we might make the wrong decision. Yet the reality of feminism is that it will never change the world if it has no faith in ordinary people.