We’re at the tail end of Trinity term at Oxford, when the university finally begins to look like the ‘city of dreaming spires’ depicted in the postcards. The dismal weather cheers up; the quadrangles are soaked in sunlight; and the students — just about to leave for the summer — grab these precious few weeks to do Oxfordy things like punting and slurping Pimm’s.
Even the swots and the lefties are filled with the spirit of Brideshead. Parties spring up on every available lawn; the chatter of gossip and teasing grows louder and louder until the sun goes down, people start throwing up and the college authorities herd the revellers on to the street.
But this year a group of undergraduates — mostly women — will be shunning all this. They will be staying in their college rooms, fingers flying across their keyboards as they scowl at the screen. They are the hard core of a feminist cult that has gripped Oxford and makes life miserable for hundreds of undergraduates across the university. The cult uses Facebook to snoop on students who aren’t ‘proper’ feminists. It tries to force young women to use its extreme rhetoric and denounces them if they don’t.
Its digital tirades can poison college life. One young woman told me that new friends she’d made at Oxford suddenly shunned her in the dining hall after the word went out that she held ‘incorrect’ views on women’s rights. (She was so worried about repercussions that she asked me not to mention which area of women’s rights she felt strongly about.)
I’m going to call the cult ‘Country Living’. That’s not quite accurate: it’s actually spelled without the ‘o’, a gynaecological pun that’s the only evidence of a sense of humour you’ll find among its leaders. I reckon calling it Country Living will make them cross. Which, to be fair, is not difficult. These lasses are very, very cross all the time. If there was an Oxford blue for taking offence, they’d be champions.
Country Living is an internet cult that polices behaviour both online and offline. Its manifesto can be read by anyone who visits its page on the blogging platform Tumblr, which is mocked up to look like a 1970s student magazine. Here we learn that anyone can become a C-word, which is a badge of honour, not a term of abuse. Those four letters have been ‘reclaimed’ by the group. (Like feminists everywhere, Country Living does a lot of reclaiming.)
But to earn this honour you must pass tests as severe as the binge-drinking initiation rituals of an all-male Oxford dining society. You must promise to ‘accept that gender is a social construction and embrace its fluidity’. You must ‘recognise your place and privilege within intersectionality’.
And if you fail to do these things, Country Living wants to know. It has spies all over Oxford. They’re not necessarily ‘members’ of the group — as with many religious cults, it’s not clear who is and isn’t a member, and fellow-travellers are often the most snoopy zealots.
A student can be chatting with friends in the Missing Bean, an espresso bar in quaint Turl Street, and say something ‘problematic’ — the Country Living buzzword, meaning anything that deviates from its rigid feminist doctrine, obsessed with transsexual rights. The Country ladies are ferocious earwiggers, and if the student is on the cult’s radar, the remark will find its way back to HQ. Which, bizarrely, is not an office but a Facebook group.
This is where Country Living rules on the correct ideological approach to any current issue. Its Facebook pages are designed as a ‘safe space’ for feminists — meaning an unsafe space for anyone who deviates from the line. As with many sectarian outfits, the smaller the deviation, the bigger the hissy fit. ‘The ultimate crime is not being a Tory man, but being the wrong sort of feminist,’ explains one woman student who, like everyone I talked to, asked not to be named.
The Country set love shutting down debates on their pages. Just after the general election, whose result came as a nasty shock to them, their Facebook administrator Shaina Yang announced that ‘I can’t allow these discussions [about the Tory victory] to continue until we release a clarified statement of what CL rules say is okay and isn’t okay on this topic.’ No wonder that, according to a survey by the Oxford Tab newspaper, a third of Country Living Facebook members were ‘too nervous’ to post in the group.
Such nervousness isn’t confined to Facebook. ‘The influence of CL goes way beyond its membership,’ says one male undergraduate. ‘Girls who come up to Oxford as mild feminists pick up the message that they have to take offence at anything that might be considered misogynistic. So boys have to monitor their own language, pretend to be worked up about trans issues, if they’re to stand any chance of getting laid.’ Something similar happened during the early Seventies heyday of old-style feminism, when guys would denounce patriarchy in order to get laid. But they didn’t have an internet Stasi to worry about.
Adds another student: ‘You see members of the college rugby club glancing around anxiously to see if there are any women present before they can tell a joke. Ironically, they’re the ones who need a safe space.’ I ask him how he can tell the difference between Country sympathisers and the hard core. ‘Weirdly dyed hair is one clue,’ he says. ‘But a better one is “problematic”. The hard core insert it into practically every sentence.’
All this is Oxford at its worst. The university has always been a playground for egomaniacs and control freaks, unlike milder, more studious Cambridge. Although there are Country members in other universities, its origins are no accident.
‘We insist that grammar and spelling are elitist and don’t matter because of a hundred years of linguistic study showing that. When people who insist on hyper-patriotism get language wrong, we use the errors in their language to suggest they aren’t qualified to judge complex matters.’ That’s a comment by one Alyson Cruise on a financial website, bearing the same photograph as the Country Facebook admin Alyson Cruise, a trans woman at St Catherine’s College (who didn’t respond when I contacted her).
If they’re the same person, then it’s bit rich of Cruise to judge errors in language, since her own grasp of syntax on Facebook is pretty rudimentary. But the urge to correct the grammar of the lower orders is very Oxonian. No other university is so intellectually snobbish. Even the Bullingdon Club is at times — look at the proportion of Firsts and future power brokers among its members. Country Living would hate the comparison, but they and the Bullers are both elitist, secretive and enjoy ridiculing people on the basis of linguistic clues. Among the Oxford social elite, letting slip a lower-middle-class word such as ‘lounge’ is what the hyper-feminists would call ‘problematic’. ‘I’d love to see a fights between CL and the Bullingdon,’ muses a student. ‘The feminists would scratch their eyes out before they’d thrown their first chair.’
Unlike the 235-year-old Bullingdon, however, Country Living is unlikely to become a venerable Oxford institution. A backlash is under way. Louisa Manning, an ex-member, has broken ranks to denounce its ‘patronising, self-righteous tone’ — and revealed that as a mixed-race woman, she had been instructed by the group ‘to identify as white when talking to people of colour’. She also accused the administrators of ‘Facebook-stalking members’ profiles’ to determine whether they were ‘legit feminists’.
She also accused the group of spreading a version of politically correct racism. People of mixed race — like herself — felt they were being ‘erased’ because they didn’t fit neatly into an ethnic category. She wrote: ‘Being half Latino, whenever I’ve become involved with threads discussing race, I’ve been accused of “passing privilege” and have been instructed to identify as white when talking to people of colour.’
Imagine if allegations of racial bullying were made against a Tory drinking club. The Oxford University authorities would investigate immediately. But Country Living is left-wing, so it is left alone.
Fortunately the group is unstable and beginning to divide into factions. Ordinary undergraduates are finally summoning up the nerve to tease them. The chances are that Country Living — like thousands of cults throughout history — will tear itself apart in an orgy of name-calling, finger-pointing and accusations of heresy. But not before its fanatics have succeeded in spoiling university life for other students — and themselves.