We’re all quite used to health warnings appearing on cigarette packets these days. We understand that such measures are justified because smoking is a habit that turns your lungs into a pair of scrofulous, black phlegmy sponges, with no counterbalancing benefits, and so any measure that encourages smokers to kick the habit, or discourages non-smokers from turning to the nefarious cocktail of tobacco, tar and paper, is to be welcomed. For similar reasons, we don’t seem to mind that fag packets now have to bear images of internal organs made gangrenous and putrid by their very contents; I, for one, predict an increase in usage of cigarette cases so that smokers can minimise the number of times that they are confronted with garish pictures of tumours the size of bowling balls, but still; it’s a gesture.
We’re also familiar with instructions not to drink-drive, and to avoid alcohol during pregnancy, appearing on the back of bottles of booze. It’s nothing more than evidence of benevolently paternal oversight of the masses by Nanny Government. Yes, the vast majority of people know that it’s a pretty poor idea to have a liquid lunch before performing retinal replacement surgery, or to sit puffing away on a packet of Marlboros if you work in a primary school, but there are enough people out there with an IQ of about 34 who do need telling that this is the case, so as to protect other, innocent bystanders from their blind idiocy.
Alcohol and tobacco are one thing; used to excess, they can cause great harm to those who use them, and to others, and so we listen to advice that we reduce consumption of them – for fear that we’ll end up with emphysema or cirrhosis ourselves – but books? Does it really follow that, because there might be a couple of hysterical Mrs Bennets in the country, with nerves like porcelain, that we should deface the dust-jacket of every tome in the land with a detailed breakdown of its contents, lest those of an unduly sensitive disposition have their feathers ruffled?
I bring all this up because groups of mostly female students at some universities in Britain and the United States are actively campaigning for all books, be they fiction or non-fiction, to be preceded by so-called “trigger warnings”, so that readers can shun works that they may find upsetting, or only read them in the company of friends, in case the literature provokes nervous collapse.
Hmm. This prospect makes me distinctly uneasy, for a number of reasons. My first reaction, on hearing this, was to howl with derisive laughter, and wonder where along the way we’d lost our ability to just sit down and read a book without being surrounded by a cohort of people to hold our hands and say, “There, there”, in case we get upset. I can hardly believe that, in years gone by, people who had been unfortunate enough to meet a dangerous convict at some point in their lives would have broken down sobbing as a result of reading Great Expectations, any more than I can imagine residents of flood-prone regions being driven to nervous breakdown by The Mill on the Floss.
But once I’d calmed down a bit, I reached the conclusion that this angry tub-thumping is part of a much wider malaise affecting Britain, namely the insidious use of hyped-up “trauma” or suchlike by people seeking attention, sympathy or just the chance to tell whoever will listen their sob story about their rotten life and the myriad reasons why they get upset so easily. I wouldn’t mind so much, were it not for the fact that they are grossly outnumbered by the masses of people with equally raw deals in life who simply get on with it and grow a skin, rather than bitching to the media about why such-and-such-a-book is insensitive to single mothers/drug addicts/prisoners’ wives/you name it. The sort of people I have in mind who “simply get on with it” with minimal fuss include the 700,000 children and teenagers who, according to a 2010 survey by the BBC, juggle schoolwork with working as carers – especially the 13,000 of them whose caring duties take up more than 50 hours a week.
Another symptom of this noxious idea that universities, far from being places of free and open discussion, should be sanitised beacons of inoffensiveness is the creeping acceptability of “safe space” policies – the notion that anything that bears the slightest possibility of causing offence to someone, somewhere, should be smothered under a dense blanket of silence, rather than confronted head-on. But to me, this doctrine comes across as not only misguided, but downright cowardly. In an earlier column, I mentioned how students at Brunel University had protested against Katie Hopkins being invited to participate in a debate on the relevance of the welfare state in the 21st century by organising so successful a boycott that she was left to address an empty hall; I stand by my argument that the students sacrificed a great opportunity to demolish Ms Hopkins’ arguments with clear, well-supported arguments of their own, for the sake of a cheap publicity stunt. Nor am I alone in believing that the best way to counter obnoxious and toxic lines of thought is to out-argue their proponents with superior evidence; a student at Edinburgh University who campaigns very vocally against “safe space” policies was recently asked on the Today programme whether he would support a debate on the veracity of the Holocaust. His response, naturally, was that of course he would support such a debate, as it would enable the arguments of Holocaust deniers to be shown up for the rubbish that they are; the alternative response of running scared from such arguments would be a supremely infantile act akin to toddlers putting their fingers in their ears and yelling “la-la-la”.
In any case, the university in Ohio where calls were first heard for trigger warnings to be introduced on books that appeared on reading lists has now dropped the proposal, in the face of an angry backlash from academic staff. Their wrath is justified; as one professor of English so candidly put it, teaching is not supposed to be therapy, and never has been. If English faculties found themselves having to drop certain books from their syllabuses, she predicted, discussion of their contents would effectively be shut down, reducing appreciation of scores of great works of literature, as well as reinforcing the insidious victim culture that seems to be dictating the agenda. And if the Americans have dropped it, surely we can drop it over here in Britain, as well? It would make sense, given the extent to which we copy the Americans these days, and the fact that we copied them in adopting this suggestion, to follow their example once more and jettison the notion of trigger warnings and safe spaces immediately.