Selwyn College dining hallHuangcjz

If we want to discover the contradictions and tensions in our attitudes towards homelessness and class inequality as students at Cambridge, our collective response to last year’s collision between elitism and economic deprivation is revealing.

It was clear to everyone from the outset that setting fire to a £20 note in front of a homeless man is nasty and cruel. Yet a year on from the public shaming of Ronald Coyne, perhaps it is time to ask what this can tell us about our attitudes towards homelessness and class inequality more broadly in Cambridge. Did the response of the student body at large tell us more about our own insecurities regarding these issues that we projected onto an individual transgressor? One Varsity article claimed that wider class problems at Cambridge “largely bec[a]me his responsibility”.

The reception the student received for his crime was ruthless. Individuals both inside and outside the Cambridge bubble channelled their outrage in a full-throttled attack, forcing him to delete his social media accounts and intermit from the University. The student reaction was the tip of the iceberg, as close attention from the national press incited even public condemnation of the young man.

In and of itself, the student’s behaviour showed nothing more than the drunken, thoughtless actions of an immature and impressionable youth. But the force with which the student body seized Coyne as a symbolic scapegoat for classism in Cambridge highlights the discomfort that Cambridge students feel at living at the top of the most unequal city in the country. In part, this reaction was performative as students sought to vocally distance themselves from a national image of elitism and obnoxiousness.

We must strive to consistently confront and challenge the class inequalities that we ourselves embody and perpetuate

Homelessness is poverty in its extreme and visible form. Yet a major study showed that when US university students were shown photographs of homeless people, the photographs ‘failed to stimulate areas of the brain that usually activate whenever people think about other people, or themselves’. In Cambridge, we live directly alongside extreme poverty – however, this poverty is rarely questioned by the student body as a collective.

Fireworks over St John's May Ball in 2014Cmglee

It has become increasingly difficult to empathise based on class and economic deprivation. As a term, class has been purged from the public imagination as a frame to understand inequality – in its place, discourses of individualism and meritocracy have proliferated. Individualised attitudes are pervasive among British citizens – surveys have shown that 70% of people think that there is equality of opportunity, and fewer people today support redistributive and welfare policies than under the Thatcher regime. This is hardly coincidental when it has been the project of successive governments since the 1980s from left to right to promote the notion of a ‘classless’, meritocratic society, and shift responsibility for structural inequalities onto individual actors – all while inequalities have reached unprecedented heights. The most effective way of generating widespread consent for inequality is, of course, to individualise it.

In this context, an expression of empathy requires a rebellion against meritocratic ideals and the dominance of individualism. We are prepared to make this expression on a large scale only when the disconnect between our own lifestyles and the harsh realities of homelessness in Cambridge are broadcast to the nation. As this case demonstrated, when elitism, arrogance and obliviousness to deprivation are projected onto us as the student body at large, we retaliate aggressively and defensively, to absolve ourselves of responsibility.

In 1984, Orwell describes the “two minutes’ hate” that occur in his dystopian vision – a compulsory period each day in which every citizen releases their internal anger onto a single individual scapegoated for awful crimes. Its social function serves as a cathartic release, intended more for an outraged audience than for the wrongdoer.


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We must strive to consistently confront and challenge the class inequalities that we ourselves embody and perpetuate, rather than engaging in one-off extreme outbursts of rage in which we scapegoat extreme cases to rid our collective conscience of guilt.

As students at Cambridge, we live at the heart of a disjuncture between privilege and extreme poverty. The opulence of being a student here – not least the lavish dinners and extortionately priced May Balls with extraordinary budgets – sits rather uncomfortably with the homelessness on our doorstep. Sitting even more uncomfortably with this harsh reality is the very visible display of this opulence on which we pride ourselves – whether be it strolling the streets clad in black tie and gown, or setting alight a million pounds’ worth of fireworks in front of the city’s entire homeless population.

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