The Sunday Times recently published an article about the extensive use of ‘trigger warnings’ at leading universities, including Edinburgh, LSE and Goldsmiths. Although this practice has been widely condemned by academics, the epidemic of protecting students from upset continues to grow rapidly.
At Oxford University, trigger warnings have been issued before law lectures to warn students of distressing material and permit them to leave if affected. In The New Yorker, Jeannie Suk, a Harvard Law School professor, writes that, “about a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students.” A culture of avoiding difficult topics means future lawyers will be less well educated about sexual violence than their predecessors and ultimately less able to defend future victims.
Last month, NUS president Malia Bouattia defended the organisation’s no-platform policy and spoke in favour of universities being ‘safe spaces’, which, she claimed, ensure “engagement, inclusion and accessibility for all”. Although, in many cases, the exact opposite is true. It is alarming that these practices, which worsen our education and are so pernicious to critical thinking, are supported by 63 percent of students.
The NUS LGBT campaign no-platforms speakers whom they believe are transphobic, for example Julie Bindel, a journalist, who has been very outspoken about trans issues. Her opinions may be offensive to some in the LGBT community, but as a key figure in the feminist movement, she raises interesting questions about how feminist and transgender agendas can be reconciled. The idea that to give a controversial speaker a platform is to endorse all their views is both simplistic and absurd. Engaging with people whose conclusions we disagree with should be seen as a source of enlightenment, not aversion. If we continue to be quick to say ‘I’m offended!” (as if this is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a person) then we will be slow to offend, slow to question, slow to debate.
Problematically, no-platforming assumes one person or body is in a position of complete righteousness with the authority to decide who is worthy of being heard. If such a position were even possible then I struggle to believe Malia Bouattia, who has been widely accused of anti-Semitism, represents this figure of irrefutable integrity.
As customers of the university, we feel entitled and able to make certain demands. Currently we ask for a safe space, somewhere we feel comfortable. But we should be bolder in our demands. We do not pay £9000 a year to bury our heads in the sand.
We have been labelled Generation Snowflake, “a collective that quivers at the slightest breeze and dissolves at the slightest upset”. While I personally think this is offensive, I do not want protection from such an accusation. I want the freedom to argue against it. Or, perhaps reluctantly admit it may hold some truth.