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The Battle of Banter

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The term ‘banter’ is pretty friendly.  Or at least, it used to be. Once upon a time, it meant an amicable ‘rib-digging’ between two leisurely gentlemen about who had caught the biggest fish; it was the only way Jane Austen’s girls could ever get kicks in their patriarchy-enforced plight to get hitched; it was a dance between words, not an offensive battle.  Banter was the icebreaker in the office, a temporary mood-lightener or break in an intense conversation. Those days are gone: banter now IS the conversation.

Banter has morphed from a light-hearted, conversational device to an excuse for being rude and offensive. Isn’t this bullying, you might wonder? You’re mistaken. Banter has created new words for bullies. Bullies are now ‘Bantersaurus Rex’s’, ‘Archbishops of Banterbury’, or ‘Kings of Banterville’. If you’ve got your ‘it’s just banter mate’, line ready when you’ve asked your mate for the second time if their slightly overweight girlfriend has mated with a hippo and is now pregnant with triplets – then you effectively have armour to prevent a punch in the face. Banter brings to mind the film released a few years ago called Hall Pass, where two half-witted wives insipidly allow their husbands to sleep with whoever they want for a week to ‘improve their marriage (because apparently infidelity is the key to the nuptial success). Equally absurd is this automatic assumption that banter gives a ‘free pass’ to say whatever you like to someone. If someone dares to get offended it is, (if you follow ‘the law of banter’ which apparently is ‘a thing’) quite frankly their own fault because they simply ‘can’t handle the bantz’.

The rise of banter comes somewhat ironically at the height of political correctness, where it is harder than ever to speak openly without being defamatory. This has impacted society to the point people have complained about a ‘Big Brother’ state, where the right to free speech is being impacted. Anything can be taken out of context. Technically if my boyfriend told me the dinner I made was amazing (unlikely, as my cooking is self-admittedly poor), I could accuse him of abusing my gender and insinuating that my true place is in the kitchen. I could ring up the nearest Women’s Rights allegiance and get him woman-handled out of my house faster than he could swallow his dinner, let alone his words. Technically, if I casually suggested that my granddad (with a bad leg, a bad back and a heart problem) was too old to go parachuting, he could accuse me of being ageist and patronising. All over the world, people are obligated to guard the words that come out of their mouths like potential political grenades. Some organisations in America have changed the term ‘brown bag lunch’ (a well known phrase dating back to the pre-Tupperware era) because it could offend African Americans. The term brainstorming is now considered taboo in some schools because it may offend epileptics and one school in Seattle has-renamed Easter Eggs, ‘spring spheres’.

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However, although political correctness is regimentally enforced in the workplace, schools and the press, keeping overt banter under control within the private realm has become increasingly problematic. Adjacently to the rise of overt PC movements, has been the rise in ‘lad culture.’  To be ‘a lad’, you are often required to go as far against cultural and political expectations as possible, show very little regard or respect to your own body and the bodies of others and go out of your way to shock, regardless of the injury that may cause. It’s worth noting that The Urban dictionary also includes in its definition, ‘a lad is a male who specialises in creating and distributing exquisite banter’. Because as I have already stated, if it’s banter than it can’t be offensive can it? The main problem with lad culture and banter is that they become so accepted, and over time, normalised. Despite many regulations (our own university has its own ‘Sexism Spotted on Campus group’, societies have faced repercussions for offensive behaviour and it’s possible to report comments made on most forms of social media), most people become pressurised or victimised by banter or lad culture in social settings that are hard to regulate.

Having been at university for over two years now, I’ve seen and heard a lot. I interviewed a random cross-section of students at a club night for CUTV (Cardiff’s student TV channel) during Freshers’ Fortnight, including several mumbling, drunken idiots of questionable ages, stating ‘I’m just here for the drunk fresher girls’ – but with a lot more C words. If you thought the hideous term, ‘Fuck a Fresher Week’ was a myth, I can confirm through those seriously unpleasant individuals that it exists.  More specifically to ‘lad culture’, I’ve been to an all-male house-party where a tally chart revealing the number of girls house-members have slept with was pinned to the fridge for everyone to see, encouraging frankly bullying comments (sorry, ‘banterous comments’) towards the one with no notches. This guy ‘coming last’ (pun unintended) was constantly under attack: ‘maybe it’s your shit clothes mate’, ‘maybe it’s your shit chat’ and other playground-level remarks. This individual was left far more likely to take desperate measures to get girls, regardless of who she was or how drunk she was. (Needless to say, we didn’t go back to that house again). Few people would admit to being peer-pressured sheep, but the sad truth is that many are: who knows what efforts that aforementioned guy would go to in an effort to keep up with his friends. Peer pressure is the main reason people sacrifice their self-respect and in multiple ways; just to gain an ounce of temporary respect from a peer who seriously doesn’t matter in the long run anyway.

You can spot the leaders and advocators of this way of life at a distance. Often, they fall into two categories. The first are the most dangerous type: popular, usually good looking and aware of it and often (but not always) in sports teams. They will strawpedo a bottle of champagne they spent half their loan on in five seconds; treat girls as objects as indistinguishable from the goal they scored that afternoon; focus on the most drunken girls to poach into their bedrooms.

The second types are the lynx reeking, spikey-haired boys that still look like teenagers. They are the ones that try and emulate what they’ve heard about university life from their older brothers in the ‘type one’ category. They are also probably primarily responsible for the fact just about every other girl I’ve spoken to has got groped in a club at some point. They will get drunk to the point they throw up down their T-shirts before they go out, but go out anyway because they’ve been too busy being ‘lads’ to do any washing. They will traipse around after girls like irritating terriers rather than the type one bulldogs, practicing meaningful chat-up lines like, ‘you’re well fit’. Most of their nights out will end with a drunken swagger home yelling ‘UNAAY, UNAAY’, turning up windscreen wipers on parked cars (oh the jokers) and throwing their leftover chips at bedroom windows before falling asleep in their sock-fumigated bedrooms, still in their puke-covered T-shirts. The occasional one might fall asleep on a street corner somewhere, before plodding home in the early hours and waking up the houseLADS to inform them of the ‘fit bird with massive tits’ that he just got laid by.

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What is being achieved by the temporary laughs and backslaps ‘lads’ are constantly striving for? Where is the ultimate ‘top lad’ and ‘banter king’ going to be in a few years time anyway? My guess is sitting slumped on a crusty sofa in their boxer shorts, sleeping by day then spending the night on the phone to sex-lines. They’ll be those old, greasy perverts in clubs, who assume that by offering to buy a drink for a girl half their age, she’ll be obligated to accompany them back to their seedy flat (she won’t). However, focusing on scenarios that happen in ten or twenty year’s time is beyond the point. Despite many lad-culture supporters fully aware their current lifestyle isn’t going to get them far in later life, it continues to impact many university students lives presently. It is in an inverted way, rather than subverted way that minorities are being excluded.  When sports teams base their initiations and socials almost exclusively on drinking, they’ve wiped out inclusion for anyone that doesn’t drink for religious or personal reasons. Despite team-members not engaging in overtly prejudiced behaviour that would break political correctness laws, you are considered as ‘not one of the lads’ if you don’t join in their regular alcohol-based antics. The infamous initiation process overrides other more positive or important aspects of being part of a sports team or society. Initiations are intrinsically linked to lad culture and banter; it’s not just about how good at sport you are, but how much of a ‘lad’ you are, how stupid you are willing to be and how much you can drink.

I don’t disapprove initiations necessarily; I just disagree with how far they can go. If no one is hurt or puts their health at risk, then who knows, maybe they can even be character building? When my first-year flatmate had to put an alive and writhing fish in his boxers for the entire night during an initiation, even he laughed about it afterwards (I know animal activists will strongly disapprove but by the sounds of it, the fish had a pretty quick ending, albeit not a happy one…) Speaking to Elliot Howells, Cardiff University’s current VP of Societies and Campaigns, he said, ‘the biggest issue with initiations is that people don’t know where to draw the line. I completely see the point of a few games and challenges to bring teams together and get to know each other! It’s people being forced to play rugby naked on a field rolling in their teammates’ faeces that I have an issue with. I like a drink as much as any other 20 year old student and the horror stories would definitely put me off playing a sport!’

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However, I’ve heard about hockey initiations where girls were forced to strip to their underwear in the street, whilst forcing down concoctions of cat food, washing up liquid and alcohol. It seems that most initiations involve vomit, which in itself is degrading and unnecessary, but some initiations can actually pose serious risks to the members involved. My brother’s rugby initiation in Manchester for example, involved (amongst other things), the Fresher’s putting the end of a match-lit loo roll up their backsides, only to be extinguished when they had finished their pints. It was only when this particular ‘task’ had started that the third years realised they hadn’t thought about how they would put the fires out. Somehow no one suffered serious injuries, but there were apparently a couple of very close misses. At one point, a group of policemen sauntered up to the crew when the boys were hanging upside and inebriated from the playpark monkey bars, clad in thongs. When they were informed it was initiation, they simply moved on. (It seems even the police don’t want to be accused of ‘not handling the bantz’ in some cases too).

It’s difficult to write an article on this subject without coming across as a killjoy. But I’m not saying stop initiations, stop getting drunk or stop making any type of joke in case it’s deemed offensive. Non-offensive banter in moderation is great. I’m merely suggesting that banter and lad culture has simply gone too far. Banter needs to be brought back down to reality in the same way that lad culture and its endorsers need to find something worthwhile to achieve beyond just sex and alcohol-related goals. The real world can’t function as one massive joke or one big piss-up. Imagine the outrage if David Cameron included in one of his speeches, ‘Nick Clegg is a spineless wanker and all his opinions are shit.’ When confronted by hounds of journalists amidst a public outcry to explain himself… well it was just Dave having a bit of banter, wasn’t it? I think not. Yes, comparing a group of students to D-Cam is extreme: if we screw up, there is less than a country at stake. But when so many conversations are being reduced to a strained conflict of offences, I just believe that we’re all more intelligent and articulate than that. Even if you’re not using banter offensively, you can still be using it extensively. Banter is not a substitute for wit and it’s time to bring back some old school humour that goes beyond a stream of half-hearted insults. If people react unfavourably to your stand or worse still give you banter for it, you can’t complain: it’s only banter isn’t it?

 

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