Lazy Journalism Never Dies: Safe Spaces and Censorship Yet Again

Yesterday, I received an email. I received dozens, actually – term started today, and a lot of students were checking in with questions about reading or deadlines or meetings – but this one stood out. It was from a journalist, and that journalist was asking (yet again) the question that makes my heart sink.

Can you talk to us about trigger warnings, censorship, and safe spaces? 

That’s the gist of the question. You might also paraphrase it: Dish the dirt on your students and tell us how precious they are! The articles that result are always pretty much the same: they insinuate that students of today are fragile, entitled little things, pampered by their parents and schools, and unable to cope wit the rigours of the full and meaningful education everyone over the age of 30 enjoyed. Students are demanding ‘trigger warnings’ because they cannot read any text containing violence. They are picketing lectures on Pope because one of his poems has ‘rape’ in the title. They are refusing to read Othello because it’s about violence against women and racism. And so on.

I have learned that journalists don’t want to hear me say that students I’ve taught don’t seem to want ‘safe’ approaches to literature, and certainly don’t want to read less about issues of violence or prejudice. I directed this particular journalist to the Faculty’s official channels of communication, only to receive redoubled questions in response:

Does the English Faculty put trigger warnings on its timetable? Do some lecturers give trigger warnings at the start of lectures? Do you? … Do you ever find yourself self-censoring for students? And what impact do you think this evolution on campus has?

This really put my back up. I particularly love the implication that I am a mere puppet in the hands of my students, helplessly ‘finding myself’ self-censoring without ever having intended to do so. It’s not as if teachers ever prepare lessons or lectures, is it? But then the line of questioning performs the oldest trick in the book, and presumes the responses it invites have already been given. I might reply ‘no,’ to many of these questions, but it doesn’t matter: by the end of the paragraph, it appears that ‘this evolution’ of censorship, trigger warnings and self-censoring has already been established from my as-yet-unformed replies.

This email, and the questions in it, came back into my mind again today, when I saw an article describing a recent event at a Cambridge college earlier this week. Apparently, a college dean – the Reverend Jeremy Caddick – decided to issue a programme welcoming students to a new year of work. With a picture of the gates of Auschwitz, and the famous slogan ‘arbeit macht frei’ (‘work sets you free’ on the front cover.

As any idiot can imagine, the implied parallel between Auschwitz and university did not pass many students by, and many of them were understandably disturbed. I could see why. Discussing this briefly with friends, we agreed this looked awfully like a deliberate attempt to provoke, dressed up as innocence.Given recent events, you’d imagine that most people would be hyper-alert to anti-Semitism. After all, a friend pointed out, if you know an image requires an explanation first thing in your sermon, then surely, you recognise that displaying it without that explanation is likely to raise questions. Others, more bluntly, merely made the point that a person of average intelligence really ought to be able to recognise that the image sets up profoundly crass parallels between university and a concentration camp. Yet the Dean’s response wasn’t apologetic. “Any suggestion we are making sick jokes about the Holocaust is infuriating,” he stated.

Infuriating? Really? Fury, it seems to me, is an odd response to the revelation that you have (inadvertently?) set up an extremely overt and obvious parallel between Auschwitz and the university life into which you are welcoming your students. ‘Infuriating’ is a nastily passive-aggressive term, a term that attempts to slide the blame onto the students who were angry about the use of the image. It’s not that the Dean states this suggestion is categorically wrong, or mortifying to him, or something he feels awful about. It’s just rubbed him up the wrong way, and he feels we should know that he’s definitely the wronged character here.

This episode made me think of other incidents in which I’ve seen people in positions of academic influence and status quite deliberately exploit the reputation of students and younger academics for being ‘overly sensitive’. If you buy into the idea that all young people are ‘snowflakes,’ then you can get away with being as provocative and unpleasant as you like – because the attention won’t be on what you say, but on yet another story of student outrage.

I’d be tempted to identify the Dean’s response to the Auschwitz image (and, indeed, the use of the image in the first place) as a form of trolling. Of course, I can’t be sure we’re right in thinking the image was intended to shock – but, if it wasn’t, then this was a pretty terrible excuse for an apology afterwards. And it does make me think that, amid all the much-publicised debates over universities as ‘safe spaces’ and the much-cited emotional fragility of students of today, we might do well to think how far those students are being deliberately provoked.

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