Where do we draw the line between tradition and toxicity?
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my residence’s dining hall and exchanging banter with my housemates after a meeting we had just attended. One of my housemates was casually browsing through Instagram when she gasped in shock and asked us, “Have you guys seen this video?” The video in question was a short, twelve-second-long clip of what appears to be a flat-screen television being thrown from the ninth floor of Helshoogte Men’s Residence as part of a residence tradition known as “Demolition Day” (hazard a guess as to how they coined that name). I felt a profound sense of unease after watching the video, yet, this did not stop me from replaying it a few times more to make sure that my senses had not deceived me. There are three things therein which stood out: the large flat-screen plummeting past the nine floors of the building, the window it broke on its way down and the piercingly loud cheers of elation which erupted from the male residents after it shattered on the ground. I was left with questions which have yet to be answered: how, and why does this destruction inspire so much euphoria? Moreover, why is it necessary?
Perhaps, they were fulfilling an innately masculine urge which I, as a woman, can neither understand nor relate to. I’ve lived in predominantly female environments for the entirety of my adolescence, first by attending an all-girls high school and now by living in a female residence – I can’t remember a group of women celebrating the destruction of any material object, much less one which appears to be of value (like a flat-screen television). Perhaps it was done to dispose of an item that they no longer had use for. Although, it’s hard to imagine that they had no use for it since it appeared to be in good physical condition. I may be mistaken in perceiving that the object is still of use. Yet even so, why did they choose to dispose of it in a manner that was not only violent, but also at a cost to their surroundings? I was perplexed and unsettled. So, I decided to look for the answers to my questions.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down and discuss my concerns with a senior resident at Helshoogte, Paul Joubert. This is what he had to say regarding the incident wherein the flat screen was thrown from the ninth floor:
Paul Joubert: I’m not the most involved person in res, so I don’t know. I wasn’t even there. I was under the impression that the things they threw out the window were already broken things or at least really old. Mostly because I’m not comfortable imagining that they would throw things that are still of use.
iL: My concern is just that when the flat screen was thrown out, it broke a window.
PJ, nods: Yes, it did.
iL: Which is causing even more damage?
PJ: Yes, that’s true.
iL: Also, my concern is: why, if it’s broken, if it’s no longer of any use, would you not dispose of it sustainably?
PJ: There’s that but also, it’s, it’s-
PJ, struggles to find the words to answer the question and sighs: Also this is one of those things where it’s a tradition and it’s not being questioned. I think people enjoy doing things like that. I think that there’s an underlying thought that, “Oh, we are in a tall building but nothing ever falls off the sides. I wonder if we could utilise this for like, fun. This is fun.” And it makes a big noise, it’s aggressive. I think there’s a case to be made that this a manifestation of toxic masculinity, aggressive power. At least something that might have manifested as that and is now just being exploited, as the tradition is being carried on. I think the official excuse would that it’s been a tradition, we can’t get rid of it now. It’s been a tradition and it’s fun.
PJ, pauses and nods: Ja, it is a really strange thing but it goes also back again to that thing where you think, “Oh, students are completely insane. They just do insane things and no-one questions it. Students are excused for being “students”.
The conversation above gave the incident more context and it was valuable to have had the opportunity to discuss it with someone who lives in the residence. I made an attempt to get in touch with the Primarius of Helshoogte for his opinion on Demolition Day but I was ultimately unsuccessful. I do want to hear what people in the house’s leadership structures have to say regarding not only the incident, but other instances of damage to property which have occurred within the residence. The latter were recounted to me by a house member who will remain anonymous: tales of drunken nights during which windows were smashed, door locks were broken, alcohol was spilt liberally on the floors and vomit was present on whichever surface was in the immediate vicinity of intoxicated residents.
This was supported by Paul Joubert’s experience of what he calls “kuier nights” during which the residents seemingly have free reign to behave as rowdily as they please without having to face the repercussions thereof the morning after. He recounted a story of a “kuier” wherein an intoxicated alumnus of the residence put pressure on Paul to go out with them and after he [Paul] had declined multiple times, he [the alumnus] convinced a fellow resident to kick down the room’s door, breaking the lock.
The mornings which follow these drunken nights are characterised by sticky surfaces which are soiled with a mixture of alcohol and vomit and overflowing trashcans surrounded by an arrangement of waste from the previous night – this remains uncleaned until the cleaning staff arrive on Monday. There are two possible reasons for this behaviour which Paul and I identified: firstly, no sense of respect towards the living environment and secondly, no visible authority during “kuier”. Paul suggested that the residents could perhaps be more respectful towards their living environment once renovations have taken place and the interior has been improved. He added that appointment of authority to oversee “kuier” will mitigate the problem
While both reasons might be an adequate justification to some for the unruly behaviour which occurs during these nights, I just don’t think that they are convincing enough. Yes, once the renovations have taken place and everything is new and improved, we could assume that the residents will be cautious to neither dirty the space nor damage it. But how long will it be before these renovated spaces lose the appeal of being “new” and “improved”, and revert to being spaces which the residents have no qualms about damaging and dirtying? Furthermore, while the appointment of authority to oversee what happens during these nights might lessen the effects thereof, it will not solve the problems at hand.
The problems are a culture of entitlement and a sense of toxic masculinity which pervade the space – these two things are inextricably linked. Why do male residents feel so comfortable destroying property, whether it is functional or not? Why do they feel so comfortable intoxicating themselves to a point at which they become raucous and lose control of their actions? Why do they leave the mess they create to worsen until someone comes to clean it up for them? Because: boys will be boys. Of course, they can break objects and cause gratuitous damage to property. Why? Because it’s a fun tradition and it affirms their masculinity. Of course, they can become as intoxicated as they like and claim that they are not to blame for their actions while they are in this state. Why? Because the alcohol is to blame. Of course, they can soil their living space and wait for someone else to clean up the mess they’ve made. Why? Because someone else is getting paid to do it. As long as male residents are assured that there will be someone to clean up after them and no one to hold them accountable for their actions, they will continue to behave in this manner
When these “Demolition Days” and “kuiers” are criticised and met with no response besides “But it’s a tradition!”, we need to consider the possibility that it’s no longer a tradition, but rather, toxicity that is perpetuated under the guise of the former.
Editorial note 2018-10-15: This article has been updated to reflect new information. It has also been confirmed that the objects thrown out of the windows were indeed already broken or otherwise non-functional.
At the time of writing, Helshoogte management has not answered our requests for comment.