There's been a kerfuffle in the local media lately about stereotyping. The Otago Daily Times stands accused of stereotyping students as howling amoral scum. Critic stands accused of stereotyping Dunedinites as fatuous, scapegoating killjoys.
It's the kind of debate that's been cropping up in university towns since 1355, when the good people of Oxford got sick of irresponsible student carousing and pitchforked 63 of them to death, acting on much the same uncharitable thoughts that have occurred to anyone who's ever had to hold a mate's hair back over a toilet. I'd be a fool not to throw my two cents in.
I've been at university for a while now, mostly studying intellectual and cultural history - that is, relating what people did to what the hell they thought they were doing. This often involves taking stereotypes and figuring out if there's any truth to them. It's an interesting field.
I've also done a lot of partying. I've partied with anti-authoritarian punk-rockers and technocratic cyberjocks. I've partied with gibbering, dope-addled hippies and shrieking, bondage-corseted Goths. I've partied with freshers celebrating the arrival at Unicol and postgrads celebrating the completion of their PhDs. I've partied with ISO footsoldiers and ACT list candidates, unconscionable teenage skanks and steel-willed moralists suspicious of mixed flats, mummy's boys born within sight of campus and international students from Norway, Mexico and Mongolia. I've never met a student who fell into only one of those categories. I fall into three or four of them myself. We're a diverse bunch.
At least superficially. The common denominator is that students are, more or less, divorced from genuine adult responsibilities. Students are overwhelmingly in their teens or twenties. They rarely have mortgages. Flirtations, hook-ups and shagging are rampant, but few students are in relationships they couldn't (and, let's be honest, wouldn't) pike on tomorrow if the mood struck them. And mixing study with parenting, although possible, is difficult enough to be tellingly uncommon. The vast majority of students are, it seems, too busy partying to have lives.
And it's this freedom from actual responsibilities, I suspect, that causes the behavior the ODT complains about. As I write this in Burns CAL at 3:45pm on Tuesday 27th March, two guys are conspiring to get up to no good at the forthcoming Hyde Street party. And it will be noted that in the video for 'Frat Nation' ("Let's burn the whole cunt tree down!"), Deja Voodoo fire a missile labeled 'BEER' into a toga party, not a suburban barbeque. Students who have gotten real lives tend to behave more sensibly. The couple I knew last year who bought their flat drank in strict moderation, got to bed around ten and collected pornography primarily for comedy value. For all she likes to project an image of roaring drunken belligerence, the single mum/linguistics major I've been hanging out with lately burns few couches. She saves the matches for her ex-husband.
As for the other side of the equation - the stereotypical Dunedinite - I haven't partied with many of them. They tend to have work in the morning, not to mention a spouse to report in to, a son who's been caught wagging and a daughter who wants a tattoo. If that's a stereotype, however, I think it's one that nails the key common denominator of Dunedin society. North Dunedin may bulge with twenty thousand students for eight months a year, but all year round the suburbs of Kenmure, Green Island and Waikari are stuffed to the gunnels with about eighty thousand people leading normal, happy, exasperating, complicated, non-subversive little lives that have no particular connection to the university.
Reading Critic you could be forgiven for thinking that this constitutes some sort of terrible foolish cop-out. Which is wrong. I come from a Dunedin family more normal than some of its members might care to admit. And judging from those people I've met who didn't grow up in normal families - the girl whose facial deformity comes from when her father thumped her as a toddler, for example - it's a good place to come from. Attentive, mature parents will do you more good than the best flatwarming party you've ever been to, however nice the punch was. Parents who get drunk, shout, split, improvise priorities and cling to preposterous adolescent conceits - who behave like students - will do more damage than every irritating flatmate you'll ever have. The quiet suburban banality Critic so quickly writes off is real life. We are not.
Yet. Because there's one social stereotype that I think is completely and unqualifiedly justifiable. Student days are the good old days, but they are not real life. Though some may enroll again, no suburbanites will ever genuinely return to the student lifestyle. Students are, however, destined for suburban life in some form. And those who resist the transition, cling unduly to their youth, or foster the infantile notion that doing so is somehow noble, will be poorer indeed.