A journalist once reportedly asked Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilisation. “I think it would be a good idea”, he is said to have replied.
The release of a new report into hazing rituals at elite Australian university residential colleges has yet again shown that barbarism lies at the heart of ruling class culture. Authors of “The Red Zone Report” spent 18 months investigating the vile, violent, sexist behaviour of some of Australia’s wealthiest young people.
The stories make you gag. The report tells of parties that end with young people being forced to eat their own vomit; students defecating in hallways and then smearing shit on the walls; groups of men masturbating into body wash bottles and then returning them to unsuspecting female students’ bathrooms; second and third year students forcing hundreds of first years (or “freshers”) into a dark airless room, turning off the lights and throwing rotting fish over them.
Drinking games in which younger students are forced to drink till they piss themselves are par for the course. And there are ritual sexual harassment and multiple instances of rape. The depravity and sexism on display in this report are extreme.
Ritual humiliation of first year university students has been a tradition since the establishment of the institutions. Newspapers and university publications have been reporting on the degrading practices of college life for decades.
In 1958, reports tell of freshers at the University of Sydney being bashed, chased, tackled and burned with silver nitrate during initiation rituals.
In 1965, newspapers reported that University of Sydney college students were forced to stand “with their noses to the wall for 5 hours” before being forced to run a 4km steeplechase while other students “struck them” and “pulled their clothes off”.
The stories get darker. In 1977, a young woman’s body was found on the grounds of St Paul’s college. She had been raped and murdered. At the same college, just five days after the body was found, four male students accused of gang-raping another female student were given a prize by the other male students: the Animal Act of the Year trophy.
The 21st century has been no better. In 2009, male students at St Paul’s began a pro-rape Facebook group. Graffiti appeared around the college bar, reading, “They can’t say no with a cock in their mouth” and “Any hole is a goal”.
Last year, Queensland University’s Emmanuel College produced a yearbook that included quotes such as “I’d rather choke her to sleep than talk her to sleep”.
The “Red Zone Report” is shocking. But the behaviour identified is an open secret. Much like Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement, the individuals and institutions now claiming to be “shocked” by the reports have known for years.
Why has such a culture flourished? Guardian columnist Brigid Delaney argues that it is just misguided:
“Three years of thinking it’s heroic to drink until you vomit, or throw fish on a room full of freshers, or make someone drink shampoo is not really good preparation for the real world – unless you are going for a job at Abu Ghraib.
“The big end of town has (at least in theory) strict standards about behaviour and are heavily invested in their reputation. Colleges with their hazing rituals are doing the students a disservice by instilling in them values and behaviour that are likely to get them fired or arrested once they enter the ‘real world’.”
It’s true that the corporate world in the last decade has been scrambling to pass new codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies to protect their brands from negative publicity.
But Delaney has missed the point. The elites in our society preside over a deeply unequal system. Beneath the surface, often not well hidden, lies the truth of Western capitalist “civilisation”. Capitalism means daily brutality for the majority of people around the world: barbaric wars, mass starvation, oppression and exploitation.
To oversee a system like this requires that human empathy be stripped away and that future “leaders” be trained to make the “tough decisions”. Ruling class schools and institutions such as university colleges have historically played this role.
As poet and novelist Al Alvarez said of his time at English private school Oundle in the 1940s: “As far as I can see, the point was to produce people to run the British empire: if you could survive five years … there was nothing the Kalahari desert or Antarctica could throw at you”.
If ruling class children and then young adults can learn to debase and demean people in their intimate lives and accept and defend interpersonal violence, they can more easily adjust themselves to life in the business and political world, where ruthlessness is an asset.
Sometimes CEOs reveal their true attitudes. Take Telstra’s former chief operations officer Greg Winn. His leaked 2007 comments are a classic example:
“We run an absolute dictatorship and that’s what’s going to drive this [company] transformation and deliver results. If you can’t get the people to go there and you try once and you try twice … then you just shoot them and get them out of the way.”
Those remarks were made at a time when several Telstra staff had committed suicide – reportedly because of the immense stress and workload being heaped upon them by management.
This is the real underpinning of the behaviour in colleges. It is the culture of the rich and powerful on display as today’s little darlings are turned into tomorrow’s corporate monsters.