Culture — In 2018, tutors at the Faculty of Law at The University of Copenhagen were asked to drop a Mexico-themed intro party for new students after complaints of cultural insensitivity. This set off a national debate about identity politics and how to deal with offences. So what are this year's students supposed to do?
Nela Gacic had ordered six sombreros over the Internet. She calls them Mexican hats, and she had bought them because she and a small group of other freshmen were going to represent Mexico at the Olympics. That is, the Olympics-themed party on the introduction camp at the Faculty of Law at The University of Copenhagen that Nela was to go on a few days later.
»I usually call it Mexican-gate,« she says about subsequent events: The costume theme was dropped, the Mexican hats were sent back to the dealer (the small group of students shared the cost of the shipment), a gala party was organised as a quick replacement (»It was a bit of a downer, because it is more fun to dress up than put on nice clothes«), and suddenly the Faculty of Law’s parties for new students were Danish media headlines.
The message came from the top in the form of an e-mail from associate dean Stine Jørgensen in which the tutors were asked to reconsider their choice of themes for the party – themes that in addition to the ‘Olympics’ included ‘Cowboys and Indians’, ‘Mexicans’, ‘White Trash’ and ‘Rich Kids’.
In the email Jørgensen stated: »I recommend strongly that you, with the coordinators, as soon as possible take another look at the costume categories to ensure that the themes live up to the faculty’s values of diversity and non-discrimination.« It was themes with stereotypes on things like ethnicity, sexuality and religion that had to be taken off the programme.
The recommendation in the email, was not taken by students as a recommendation, but as a ban.
»It was a major practical problem because we received the email two days before the intro camp, and there were 700 new students who had bought stuff for these themes,« says Jakob Krabbe Sørensen, who was an intro camp tutor in 2018. Later, when the associate dean’s email was leaked, and the University Post took up the story, he spoke on behalf of the tutors.
The university had received three complaints about the party themes before contacting the tutors: A student had called and complained, and two students had sent emails. The faculty responded to the complaints by drawing a red line. And Jakob Krabbe Sørensen believed then, and now, that this line was placed in the wrong place.
»It is always a trade-off: You have to be able to dress up in a fun way, but you need to be able to take into account that nobody should be offended. Someone might always be offended, or consciously even seek an opportunity to feel offended, and then there needs to be a limit to this somewhere. We thought that this threshold was too low,« he says, adding that he understands that the university needed to make a quick decision.
You say there will always be someone who seeks an opportunity to be offended by themes. Do you think this is something that people have made up to set off a debate?
»I don’t know. It is also a matter about the principle of what space you leave for people who want to exploit it. Someone will always do so.«
Jakob Krabbe Sørensen will not say exactly where the line should be drawn, as it is not his job, he says. But he, and the other intro camp tutors at the Faculty of Law, would like to have the process taken up for evaluation.
»And it certainly already has been,« he says.
We feel that no matter what we choose, then it feeds into a stereotype.
On dr.dk, the Danish public service broadcaster’s web media, the story headlined with ‘University of Copenhagen bans offensive costume’, the tabloid B.T. wrote that ‘University of Copenhagen bans ‘offensive’ costume’. On the University Post, the story ran as ‘No dressing up as a Native American, a Mexican, or an Olympic athlete’, and on daily newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad the headline was ‘Critics: The university goes too far in banning obscene jokes and Indian costumes«.
Now, a year later, the debate has left its mark on the planning for this year’s intro camps. The discussion was, for a short moment at least, just about what you should be allowed to dress up as, and when particular costume choices might reinforce prejudices. But it is clear in retrospect that the debate went much deeper. It dovetails with a wider debate on taking and giving offence after #metoo and provoked widespread fear among some pundits that Danish universities had succumbed to excessive sensitivity – just like in the United States, as many Danes will frame it. A costume party at the university suddenly became a wider question about society. The University of Copenhagen wanted to just follow the new trend, but ended up being engulfed in a media storm.
In the summer of 2018, the University of Copenhagen launched a set of guidelines, in which the university stated that it was the individual’s subjective experience of an action being offensive that was »the starting point«. The associate dean at the Faculty of Law at the time, Stine Jørgensen – who had written the email to the tutors – told the newspaper Berlingske at the time that the email should be seen as a continuation of an increased focus on gender, sexuality and ethnicity from management.
»I see it clearly as an expression of the fact that there is a heightened awareness on how we should relate to each other, and that you should not offend anyone. We had not had prior thoughts about this problem complex. During the past year, more attention has been paid to how you should not have to put up with so much any more. We have been a part of a real trend in society.«
The debate on the costume parties was never solely about the costume parties. It was about who has the right to define an offence at the University of Copenhagen.
Last year in August, Amanda Højbjerg Jacobsen was dressed up as a pirate. She was on the freshers’ trip as a student of Theatre and Performance Studies, and the party had the theme of a fictional island ‘Neverland’. Others were dressed up as ‘the lost boys’ from the Peter Pan adventure, and some were dressed as Indians. Today, Amanda Højbjerg Jacobsen is a tutor herself. She has helped to plan the upcoming intro trip for freshmen, and this year a theme like ‘Neverland’ would not have made the cut, she says. »We would probably be wary and find another theme because of the Indians.«
There are a lot of thinking pauses when she speaks, she says ‘hmm’ a lot and her voice sounds like it is a good idea to consider what you say one extra time. She says that the tutors have followed the debate over the past year intensely. They have talked about using a fictional theme, based on an adventure, in the realm of the supernatural, because in this way they can avoid problematic themes. But then again, the fictitious Indians could easily be offensive in the real world.
The tutors from Theatre and Performance studies ended up this year with a ‘farm theme’. It is so broad, they reckon that the new students can interpret it as they want.
»We have later thought that it might offend someone as it is a very Danish theme. What happens if everybody turns up in overalls, chewing on a straw? We feel that no matter what we choose it feeds into a stereotype,« says Amanda Højbjerg Jacobsen.
So you reckon that it is the stereotypical part of it that makes it offensive?
»Yes. And it’s hard not to stereotype at all.«
Amanda Højbjerg Jacobsen can understand that some students found last year’s themes at the Faculty of Law problematic. But she also thinks it is a … difficult subject.
»I think that what is considered offensive is when we generalize about something that is not … How should I explain it? When we generalise about something that is not very close to us, and which we do not know enough about to state anything about. When it is not typically Danish, it might not be our job to interpret it. On the other hand, I think that what we do in the intro week is fun and games.«
Amanda Højbjerg Jacobsen finds it hard to talk about. She is afraid to formulate herself in a manner that gives offense. You get the impression that she has simply lost her way in the debate. In this way, she might represent a large, silent student majority very well.
The debate about the University of Copenhagen’s guidelines for dealing with offensive behaviour has, in the media, been shaped by the voices that can soar up to a place where it is all about freedom of speech. Danish politician Morten Messerschmidt called the University’s guidelines a ‘fatwa’ and called for civil disobedience. »This is any freedom-loving student’s duty,« he wrote in a featured comment on the Altinget news site.
It is harder to find people who stood up for the University of Copenhagen and defended the university’s intervention in the costume parties.
For Jakob Krabbe Sørensen and the law intro tutors however, the major issue was of a more practical nature, because they had to think up new themes two days before the intro freshers’ trip camp. In several cases, they ended up only altering the themes a bit, so students could still use the costumes they had spent money on. ‘Cowboys and Indians’ became ‘The Wild West’, ‘Mexicans’ became a ‘Hat Party’, ‘White Trash’ turned into ‘Trailer Park’.
Jakob Krabbe Sørensen says that he understands that the whole mess has led to a debate on freedom of speech. He believes that this debate is important, but: »Of course, it is not a core part of the freedom of expression that you should be allowed to dress up as a Mexican.«
Carina Meier was a new student at the Faculty of Theology in 2018, and now she is a tutor. She says that it is good that the University of Copenhagen has tightened up the guidelines on offensive behaviour, and she has no objection to the guidelines also applying to costume parties on a freshers’ intro trip.
She says that the debate in the past year has made a positive contribution to the deliberations of the tutors when planning themes and parties. And even though she is able to understand the argument that it must be up to the tutors themselves to plan their intro course, she thinks it is good with some clear guidelines.
»The tutors need some freedom, but it must be freedom with responsibility. I think it’s okay that the University of Copenhagen sets out guidelines when they have received information from people who have felt offended. I can only see something positive in this,« she says.
The debate about offences has taken up a lot in the course of the tutors’ planning. But it is not her impression that the tutors at the Faculty of Theology found that there was too much debate. They are not interested in anyone feeling excluded or ridiculed. Of course there is a limit to how many considerations you can take, but: »you can never say to someone that they need to just calm down, because they are the ones who know whether they feel offended or not,« says Carina Meier.
How do you know whether something has crossed the red line?
Carina Meier responds: »We have thought a lot about whether we would think this would be okay if it was us? Everyone is different and has different opinions, but if you use your common sense, I think it cannot go far wrong.«
And yet: Jacob Krabbe Sørensen says that when the law tutors planned the themes for their parties last year, they considered themes that on the one hand would be fun and, on the other hand, not be offensive or disrespectful. Of course they were, he says.
There may be situations where a person has felt offended, but where management finds that no offending action has been committed.
So why did some people find the themes to not be OK? Amanda Højbjerg Jacobsen, tutor at Theatre and Performance Studies, says that the question of whether something is offensive or problematic is to a great extent decided by the recipient. In other words, what I find problematic is not necessarily the same thing as what you find problematic. And then common sense doesn’t help. And so we are back with the question: Who decides, in the end, whether something is offensive or not?
The university’s management does apparently The university’s guidelines on handling offence from 2018 have been revised and now only need final approval. In the new version of the guidelines, the offending experience has been replaced with a management assessment. In the old guidelines it stated that it is the »employee’s or student’s experience of having been subjected to offensive behaviour that is the starting point.«
In the new guidelines it states that: »There may be situations where a person has felt offended, but where management finds that no offending action has been committed.« The University of Copenhagen does, however, in the new guidelines refer to the Danish working environment authority, which takes as its point of departure the individual’s experience when it comes to offences – exactly like the first, heavily criticised, set of rules did.
Confused? You are not the only one. Let us go back to Carina Meier at Theology. She says that the tutors have worked out an intro course that she does not think will offend anyone. They have not only thought about things like identity, nationality, sexuality, they have also thought about whether the various activities are available to people with different body composition types and different types of personality. They will include a midnight race on the intro camp, where there is a clear rule that it should not in any way be scary or unpleasant.
»We call it the boo factor, because there are some that do not like the dark or being startled in any way,« says Carina Meier.
They have also put in a number of breaks in the programme, so that people can retreat and take a break away from all of the social activities.
»As a tutor, we also respect if there is something that people do not want to get involved in. Even though it is difficult to find an activity that everyone thinks is fun, then it is important that you take into account the cases where people need to be themselves.«
But has it taken a bit of the fun out of tutor role that they have to be so careful and take so many different considerations? »Not at all,« she says. »You can easily have fun without having to put people down or ridicule them.«
The debate has not changed fundamentally how Amanda Højbjerg Jacobsen or Carina Meier how they plan a freshers’ trip. But it has made them more aware of what goes down well on the camp, and what they need to avoid. They both think the debate has been important.
Jakob Krabbe Sørensen says that he hopes that this year there will be more trust in the tutors on the part of the faculties. Trust that they will think, and make sure that intro course camps don’t put people down or offend anyone. He recognises that the faculty management was in a difficult situation last year, but hopes that management will handle it differently this year if there happen to be students who find some of the costume parties inappropriate.
»This could, for example, be done by involving the tutors in the dialogue with the offended students, or by discussing the themes with the faculty management in advance if this is deemed necessary.«