Cultural values and practices have an immediate impact on our daily lives. These elements of our culture constitute certain norms that influence what we wear, how we eat, what attitudes we have, etc. Because of this, wherever there are norms there is likely to be disagreement about them. What is not clear is how this disagreement ought to be handled. More specifically, what makes a certain subculture and its practices problematic? A subculture could be considered problematic in the low-voltage sense of simply going against the grain. However, what if a subculture disrespects certain core values such as equality or respect for human dignity, that we believe to be objectively true? These cultures are problematic in a more high-voltage sense.
A recent example of a subculture deemed problematic, especially in schools and universities across the UK, is the so-called “lad culture”. The natural question is then raised: ought we to do anything about it? In particular, what should the schools and universities where lad culture is purportedly prevalent among students do about lad culture? Should policy be enacted to somehow constrain lad culture? The answer is both yes and no.
Let me first make a brief note. There is bound to be disagreement about the nature of lad culture. Firstly, there is bound to be disagreement about what lad culture consists in. Somewhere a sociologist is likely theorizing about the underlying social construct that grounds a night of binge-drinking and cat-calling. I remain neutral on this point. More seriously, there is bound to be disagreement about whether lad culture is a genuine problem. Some may claim that lad culture is merely politically incorrect, perhaps vulgar, but largely harmless, and thus problematic in only the low-voltage sense. Others may claim that lad culture promotes sexism and other forms of bigotry, and is thus problematic in the more important high-voltage sense. I remain neutral on this point as well. I make no claim about how dangerous lad culture actually is.
It is worth mentioning that accusations of bigotry are heavyweight charges. Being a genuine bigot and promoting bigotry is a terrible thing. Such accusations ought not be made lightly, and without substantiation. It is important to realise that comments can be offensive without rising to the level of bigotry. On the other hand, it is imperative that we not accept genuinely sexist or racist comments that pretend to be jokes, or a bit of banter. The unfortunate state of affairs is that differentiating between the two can sometimes be tricky.
Now, for the sake of argument, assume that lad culture is problematic in the high-voltage sense. I assume this simply because otherwise there is little to discuss. If lad culture is not problematic in this sense then no policy need be enacted as a counteractive measure. So, should universities enact policy to counteract such lad culture?
Universities should enact policy that prevents certain actions that are detrimental to the well-being or safety of other students. For example, sexual harassment should not be tolerated. However, one might complain that banning such behavior as sexual harassment doesn’t really solve the problem. First, because while sexual harassment is an obviously offensive action, other offensive actions perpetrated by lad culture might be more subtle, and maintain a veneer of deniability. Thus, such actions might be very difficult to stop. For instance, a sexist comment masquerading as a joke. More importantly, the problem with lad culture doesn’t necessarily consist in any action. One might argue that it’s the attitude that’s problematic – it’s the sexist or racist attitudes. But how do we stop the attitudes of lad culture? That is the real problem. Can universities enact policy to change the attitudes? I do not think they should even try.
First, I do not think universities should try and change attitudes via policy because it is notoriously difficult to legislate on the hearts of man. It is much easier to change laws than to change minds. Historical examples abound. For instance, the 1960s saw sweeping civil rights legislation in the United States that ended many racist policies. However, such legislative change did not eradicate racist attitudes. If anything, change happened in the other direction. Civilian led movements gradually changed sufficiently many attitudes such that policy could be enacted.
Second, an effort to change attitudes through policy risks impeding on various civil rights. For what kind of policy would be enacted? Would certain phrases or types of speech be banned, and if so, how? Would certain activities that are seemingly associated with lad culture be banned? Policy is often a blunt tool, and there is a significant danger of overreach. Students who are genuinely joking (even crudely) should not become collateral damage in the fight against lad culture.
Perhaps the best reason why universities should not enact policy against lad culture is that we have other measures available. Namely, social pressure. Students who disagree with lad culture are free to write articles, organize protests, make arguments etc. It is worth reflecting on the success of the LGBTQ rights movement, which has changed attitudes largely though civilian movements and social pressure. That is, anti-LGBTQ attitudes in western countries have declined significantly in the last few decades before any governmental policy was enacted. If students find lad culture problematic, it is up to them to change their own cultural landscape.