The Sunday Times: Here’s a trigger warning for all campus censors: I shall fight you
I stopped watching HBO’s Rape of Thrones — sorry, Game of Thrones — three years ago. I appreciated the plotlines and strong characters and I’ve had both women and men explain to me why it’s necessary for the actresses to play hyper-‐sexualised roles. But at the end of the day, to me it’s a sleazy peep show about tits and bums gussied up with high production values and clever dialogue.
There’s a level of crude objectification, a cinematic revelling in the humiliation of women that speaks to something else. It disgusts me on many levels, not least because I believe that “something else” is modern society’s continuing toleration of sexual inequality.
So what’s an angry feminist to do? Well, watch a different programme, for a start. But more effective: complain, debate and generally participate in the marketplace of ideas to try to persuade others that “edgy” entertainment doesn’t have to mean taboo-busting depictions of women being degraded.
In short, I can fight back. The reason I’m not afraid to do so is because I have at hand two of the most powerful tools known to humankind: an education and the freedom to speak — the very tools that men kept from women for thousands of years.
If today’s generation of college students gets its way, however, these treasures of modern life will be betrayed and squandered for a handful of narcissistic tropes about marginalised identities and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
America has always been prone to mass hysteria: the “great awakenings”, the Salem witch trials, the “red scare”, McCarthyism. The latest festival of hyperventilation is the “trigger warning”.
Suddenly, thousands of (mostly female) students have become so sensitive to the written word that any unexpected exposure could trigger PTSD-like memories of previously painful events.
The only remedy, so they claim, is to have all course syllabuses either scrubbed of uncomfortable content or else clearly marked and segregated by the appropriate trigger warnings. A professor may have the option of not presenting the objectionable material, allowing students to absent themselves from that part of the course or flagging the work for its depictions of rape, misogyny, racism, homophobia and violence.
Only last month the student-led Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board at Columbia University, New York, warned against the harm caused by such works as Ovid’s Metamorphoses because “like so many texts in the western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalises student identities in the classroom”.
It’s mind-boggling to think that anyone could take this stuff seriously. It’s also really disheartening. Once again, as in the gluten-free fad that’s become big money in America, a genuine and terrible disorder suffered by a small section of society has been appropriated by Generation It’s All About Me.
In this case the financial losers are first and foremost the parents who are shelling out thousands of dollars so that their little darlings can avoid the rigour of intellectual inquiry. But eventually students will be the losers too as they discover in later life that their need to be very, very safe has made them so very, very helpless.
It’s funny how things come around. In the early 1990s the creeping malaise suffocating and eviscerating campus life was political correctness.
I saw it as an undergraduate in New York: the sit-ins, the marches, the “sensitivity training” sessions, the harassment of humanities professors for teaching the work of dead white men.
Political correctness was a perversion of liberalism. Its supporters claimed their goal was to have more diversity in academia, but in fact it was about imposing ideological purity in the classroom.
The online world, the venue so beloved of bullies, trolls, and holier-than-thou thought police, has been a boon to these academic neo-Puritans. Having flourished there with a million hashtags, they’ve launched themselves back into the real world.
This time, by turning the daily process of education into an alleged assault against women, the trigger movement has enabled legions of self-proclaimed victims to become the victimisers.
Three months ago one of the surviving journalists of Charlie Hebdo, Zineb El Rhazoui, gave a talk at Chicago University while under armed guard. She had a great deal to say about free speech. Incredibly, afterwards Rhazoui was denounced by students for using her “privileged position” to oppress others, and the organisers were attacked for giving her a “free pass to make condescending attacks” on audience members who disagreed with her.
Not long before the Rhazoui incident, the president of Smith College, Massachusetts, was forced to issue a public apology over an alumni event in New York where she had failed to object to the use of an offending word in a discussion about racial epithets in literature.
The college’s student government association declared: “If Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students.” (Who knew that discussing Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could be so dangerous.)
But these examples pale in comparison with the trials of Laura Kipnis, a feminist film professor at Northwestern University, in Illinois, who is being sued for mental harassment by two female graduate students because of an essay she wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education that criticised the trigger movement’s “obsession with helpless victims”. Kipnis faces ruin.
So do we all if this movement isn’t checked. The premise of these trigger-warning campaigns is based around the idea of failure. In their world view there is no possibility of a better future or of realigning, reinventing or redefining society. They believe male oppression has won in perpetuity: limiting the damage is all that can be done. It’s an admission of defeat palliated by bromides about safe places and respect for feelings.
Well, I don’t accept it. We are still fighting the battle for equality, but in no sense are we losing. Nor do I accept the law of silence. I will write what I think and you can say what you will. Sue me.