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Don't blame lad culture for misogyny, blame misogynist lads

The NUS report condemning 'laddism' isn't the right way to solve a social problem

That’s what she said. Banter. Your mum. Man up. Stash. Lash. To neck. To chunder. Get your tits out for the lads. Lads on tour. On the razzle. (To the tune of the Westminster Quarters:) Down it fresher, fresher down it. You are visiting women? Do not forget your whip. Everything about woman is a puzzle, which has one solution: pregnancy.

(The last two are quotes from Nietzsche, who was not a lad. His biographers believe he had sex either once or twice in his life, both times with a prostitute, and from one encounter contracted the syphilis that drove him slowly insane. Hence the hostility towards women, one imagines.)

People who talk like this are irredeemably dull. They pick from a very limited roster of conversational options. They are the kind of people who gesture to pools of their own vomit with a kind of childish pride, as if to say, Look mommy, I made this.

But according to a recent paper from the NUS, lads are also the vectors of a pathological culture: ‘laddism’. This culture is mysoginistic, homophobic, and normalises sexual violence and harassment. Worse, lads can be strategically ironic: they can hide their hostility behind the assertion that they were joking all along. Universities should take heed of laddism, and stamp it out, advises the NUS. The NUS has lads in their sights.

No lad is an island

Some lads are unpleasant. All are boring. A lad needs the parodic machismo, excretal humour, and ritualised drinking because it makes him feel valued and respected by his peers. These standards are banister-rails that give the lad something to hold onto in his social life. He is a tragic figure: ever seeking the authentic approval of those around him, but unable to do so without becoming inherently ridiculous. Few lads fail to outgrow the label. Those who don't are to be pitied.

But the NUS is wrong to blame laddism for sexual harassment, discrimination, and racism. The NUS is wrong in exactly the same way that David Starkey was wrong to blame ‘black culture’, or an imagined variant of it, for the riots.

It is misguided to blame cultures for the actions of individuals. To do so is to exculpate the guilty and to make the innocent complicit. Members of a culture who act wrongly are less guilty because their actions can be sympathetically put in context. Members of a culture who are neither sexist nor racist nor homophobic are nonetheless tainted with membership of a culture that is each of these things.

This has real consequences for assignments of praise and blame. When harmless habits are conflated with harmful habits, we may end up prohibiting or proscribing actions that are and ought to be wholly licit.

It is also to be confused about the problem. Universities face real policy dilemmas surrounding women and violence. To blame a culture, instead of individuals, is to focus efforts where they are not needed. On women’s safety, as on mental health, and disability access and welfare provision, universities in the UK should do more. Targeting laddish behaviour may not be the best way to solve social problems.

Most of all, it is to underestimate the complexity of individuals. Pubescent teenagers and developing young adults live confusing lives. They are complex things in complex environments. Even a reasonably well-defined cross-section of a student community will include a whole variety of different ways of living one’s life. There are many lads who are objectionable only when you are forced to interact with them. There are many lads for whom the bi- or tri-weekly purge is a source of harmless catharsis.

Judith Shklar, a late political theorist at Harvard, wrote extensively on the virtues good democratic citizens should have. We all need what she called ‘easy spontaneity’, the willingness and ability to avoid deference to group standards, and to challenge everyday injustices when they occur. Lads need this just as much as everyone else: the lads who do deserve blame are those who ignore, condone, or encourage misogyny and its ilk.