The granting of privileges to drinking societies is incompatible with a College ethos of inclusivity and equality.
A contradiction lies at the very heart of the justification for College offering privileges to drinking societies. Two conceptions of these clubs are offered; neither of these are adequate and it is only through the unjustified conflation of the two that drinking societies are defended. Though the issues surrounding these clubs are multifaceted, intersectional, and societal, the field here is restricted to the nature of the groups themselves (as opposed to their history or values) and their relation to College.
The first conception is that drinking societies are simply ‘codified friendship groups’. Let us set aside for the time being that a natural friendship between a senior College officer and a fresher seems unlikely, and take this assertion at face value. If this is the case, why do they insist on calling themselves ‘clubs’ or ‘societies’? The explanation must be that ‘society’ is a term simply used by the members to designate the group. In fact, the term ‘society’ is used by College to justify treating them as more than simply a friendship group. Friendship groups are not entitled to College privileges: there are no friendship group garden parties on the Second Quad lawn, or dinners in the Champneys Room.
College societies, on the other hand, do enjoy such privileges. This is the second conception offered in defence of drinking societies. The Boat Club, for example, enjoys the right to hold dinners at the end of racing weeks. So, under this model, there is no inconsistency in drinking societies enjoying the privileges they do. But drinking societies are fundamentally different to all other College societies – they are invite-only. For every other society and club in College, we demand equality of access, and by equality I do not mean that anyone can become a member, but that there must be defined non-arbitrary criteria to join and enjoy their privileges.
Now, we can debate the level of success which these clubs have had in achieving this equality of access, but what many find so shocking about drinking societies is that they lack even a pretence of such equality. Admission to these clubs is exclusively invite-only. Under such conditions there simply cannot be equal access. Even the odd inclusion of members from marginalised groups does not make a society inclusive: it remains founded on a premise of unjustified exclusivity; it is about who you know. Such neglect for the College’s duty towards equal access has no place in the realm of College societies, which have their privileges because of the benefits they confer on the College as a whole.
If drinking societies are truly societies, they must be compelled to end their invite-only process; if they are friendship groups, they should have no right to College-endorsed privileges. The conflation of these two conceptions shrouds the already secretive groups in a hazy fog of contradictions; I hope that this will have done a little to illuminate the way forward.