Trigger warning. This column contains ideas you may disagree with and pursues arguments that could cause distress to your existing worldview. Those of a sensitive disposition are advised to find a safe space.
Such advisories are becoming commonplace, another layer of cotton wool for a civilisation insulating itself to the point of suffocation. Last week we learned that academics at Cambridge are issuing trigger warnings for lectures on Titus Andronicus in case students are upset by the rape of Lavinia. Classes on The Bacchae are also flagged up for scenes of animal dismemberment. The university insists this is not a faculty-wide policy; the use of trigger warnings, a spokesman stressed, is at the discretion of individual lecturers.
Shakespeare and Euripides have fallen foul of ‘Generation Snowflake’, the sneery nickname for millennials that they seem hellbent on vindicating. So stridently offended are they by almost everything they encounter, it’s no wonder their tutors are nervously attaching alerts to their reading lists. Who wants their serene afternoon punt disrupted by protestors incensed by a book that doesn’t conform to current standards? If only the Bennet sisters had spent less time entertaining suitors and more time debating gender as a social construct.
Anyone who doesn’t know there are bloody scenes and awkward themes in the Bard’s writing shouldn’t be allowed out alone on Cambridge high street, let alone into Cambridge University. The point of great literature — of a liberal education — is to challenge students and how they think. It makes them more rounded and better able to face the world. Shielding them from difficult ideas is not tending to their welfare but denying them the chance to learn, examine their assumptions and question what they think and why. If you get through four years of university without changing your mind on at least one major topic, your education has been a resounding failure.
And yet universities are making it easier to do just that. Imported American neuroses have given us the trigger warning and its corollary, the safe space, the soft play area of intellectual life. Speakers whose views fall outside a rigid, arid consensus are ’no-platformed’, or prevented from speaking on campus. Earlier this year, forensic science students at Strathclyde University were warned to expect ‘blood patterns, crime scenes and bodies’, facts they could surely have gleaned from skimming a Patricia Cornwell novel. Meanwhile, learners at Glasgow University were forewarned their theology course would contain ‘graphic scenes of the Crucifixion’.
Christ on a cross.
Glasgow is my alma mater and how times have changed since I was a student there. English Literature was taken by a convoy of Tankies and Trots who introduced us to Donne and Milton during brief interludes in the official curriculum of denouncing the Iraq War and prosecuting Ariel Sharon. There were no trigger warnings for Edna Pontellier’s watery demise or Melanie’s olorine ordeal in Uncle Philip’s puppet show; we were thoroughly unprepared for Bluebeard’s slayings and no one supplied much-needed Kleenex when George turned the gun on Lennie.
Our political philosophy lecturer had us read HLA Hart — who argued that the laws of Nazi Germany, though repugnant, were legally valid — and John Finnis, a Catholic theorist so staunch he makes Opus Dei look like the Green Party. This instructor was a man of liberal convictions — encountering me years later, he exclaimed: ‘Oh God, you’re the one who used to bring the Daily Mail to lectures’ — but he wanted to challenge his students with contrary points of view.
Triggers warnings are sometimes defended as considerate or sensitive. Considerate of whom? Not the student, whose life experiences are limited and whose thinking never develops beyond safe exchanges of received wisdom. The only goal being served is the professor’s desire for an easy life. The very people charged with expanding the horizons of the young are complicit in narrowing their outlook — and this is what passes for ‘progressive’ nowadays.
It is in this very intolerance for heterodox ideas that millennials give the game away. We pride ourselves on being broad-minded and forward-thinking, not like the old people who voted Leave and don’t know their POCs from their LGBTQs. Yet there is nothing new about trigger warnings; they have been alerting audiences to sex and violence in TV shows and movies for decades. The difference is that we titter at those, scoff at their fuddy-duddy morality, all the while importing the same classification system into higher education — and no longer seeing the humour in it.
The contrast with earlier generations is stark but not in the way millennials think. The children of the Sixties were truly radical, demanding greater autonomy and self-determination than any previous generation. They wanted to be treated like grown-ups, rebelled against reassuring myths, and went out of their way to provoke and disrupt. They hungered for fresh ideas and new experiences, to shock and be shocked. Yes, they would grow up to wreak havoc on precious traditions and institutions, and their permissive, indulgent parenting gave birth to millennial entitlement, but at least they weren’t banal.
Millennials are self-absorbed, arrogant, hypersensitive, and smug but more than anything they are crashingly dull. They make hysteria look boring. For all they deride conservative values, this is a generation that busies itself policing language, banning opinions they disfavour, moralising against ‘inappropriate’ behaviour, and reviving sexual puritanism. They have already had all the ideas worth having and they guard their new doctrines of modesty and morality with trigger warnings and no-platforming, prophylactics against critical enquiry.
Millennials may talk Left but they are the real conservatives. This is why ministers are mistaken to raise the prospect of fines for universities that allow their students to exclude speakers on political grounds. Government-mandated open-mindedness is as wholesome an idea as it sounds and if this generation wants to wallow in self-inflicted ignorance, let them. They’ll be so much easier to beat down the line.
Joanna Cherry, SNP MP for some unfortunate part of the country that surely doesn’t deserve her, certainly put Ross Thomson in his place.
She blasted the Aberdeen South MP for jetting off to Barcelona to run the line at a Champions League match instead of attending a Commons vote on Universal Credit.
Fair enough you might think, except Douglas Ross, MP for Moray, is the Tory who skipped Parliament to be an assistant referee at Camp Nou. When the error was pointed out, she tweeted: ‘Oops! For some reason I find it hard to distinguish between the new @ScotTories MPs.’
This is the same Joanna Cherry, a QC no less, who wrongly accused a nurse who grilled Nicola Sturgeon on TV of being the wife of a Tory councillor.
I think Jessica Fletcher’s job is safe for now.
Still, Miss Cherry’s point stands. MPs shouldn’t be flying out to Barcelona to referee matches. They should only go there to interfere in referendums and upset our Spanish allies.
New figures from Scottish Labour show the SNP’s mishandling of delayed discharge cost the NHS more than £100m last year. Shona Robison’s woeful tenure as health secretary gets worse by the day. Now there are 100 million reasons for Nicola Sturgeon to replace her with someone up to the job.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.