July 16th 2016

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COVER STORY 2016 election: Malcolm makes allies malcontents

CANBERRA OBSERVED Electorate shock: PM touches reality's live wire

WA BUSHFIRE INQUIRY Ferguson report a beauty, but now the fight begins

AGRICULTURE Sweet success for farmers in Queensland sugar market


ECONOMICS Ignore scaremongers; Britannia rules apply

PUBLIC POLICY WA Meth Strategy 2016 a most welcome first step

EUTHANASIA Measure of success of Dutch tests will be death

HIGHER EDUCATION Trigger warnings: an infantile tyranny

FREE SPEECH From disagreement to discrimination: section 18C, Part 2

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Middle Kingdom brings eternal Now down under

MUSIC Weighing up sounds and silence in John Tavener

CINEMA Memory, self and family: Finding Dory

BOOK REVIEW Mao Maoing a culture

ERICH VON MANSTEIN: Hitler's Master Strategist

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Trigger warnings: an infantile tyranny

by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, July 16, 2016

It would be worth somebody’s while seriously to examine the waves of destructive madness that at times sweep the Western world’s universities, and even more worthwhile to put a stop to the latest.


This latest such is the fashion for so-called “trigger warnings”: that is, warnings to students in advance that the use of certain words or expressions might hurt their tender feelings.


These warnings, now sweeping universities throughout the English- speaking world, not least in Australia (not least by any means!), have now reached such a state that it is not easy to parody them.

The students who are the subject of such “trigger warnings” seem, to an astonishing degree, unaware even of what an insult such things are to their own presumed maturity and mental toughness. Since the Vietnam years one expects nothing of university staff as a whole, but one might expect a few individual students, at least among the mature-aged and part-timers, to show some gumption and independence of mind.

Columnist and blogger Tim Blair, in his inimitable and invaluable weblog, has pointed out that trigger warnings at Australian universities have now become even stupider than trigger warnings in the United States and Britain: “University students are being warned when classes contains graphic or sensitive content, including sexual abuse, rape and transgenderism, in order to protect their mental health.

“Australian academics are issuing ‘trigger warnings’ for confronting material in classrooms at the start of each semester, and before classes, to give students the chance to opt out.”

Blair continues: “University of Melbourne’s Dr Lauren Rosewarne, who teaches about gender and sexuality, has been warning students about potentially disturbing content since she started teaching 13 years ago …

“Dr Rosewarne said students in the past two years have been increasingly ‘polic[ing] the language of lecturers’, and said she is frequently being scrutinised by students, who shout out corrections in the middle of lectures.”

One would think the way to deal with this would be by expulsion of these disruptive and ill-mannered elements, even if only for the sake of those students who actually want to learn something.

Boo, you geese

Blair quotes an “ever-growing list of trigger-worthy topics”: “La Trobe’s student union and the women’s officers at the University of Sydney issue warnings for content relating to classism, colonialism, Islamophobia, ableism, body image, child abuse, mental illness and weapons.”

How, one wonders, would the history of world war be taught without mention of weapons. Trainee social workers and law students not allowed to hear about child abuse and rape?

It is obvious that there is no point in trying to argue rationally with this kind of thing. There is no sane rationale behind it. But universities have no obligation to accommodate the enemies of reason. Rather, they have an obligation to keep them out.

However, it gets better. Blair continues: “They go as far as warning students about content relating to needles, insects, food, pregnancy, eye contact, slimy things, skulls, vomit and blood.”

One wonders if these words are banned at the medical schools, or if students who cannot bear to hear them mentioned, and therefore avoid attending courses where they are mentioned, are penalised by way of marks come exam time (if they still have anything as traumatising as exams).

And what happens when the courses move from merely mentioning skulls, vomit and blood to actually handling them, as some of the students’ less-privileged contemporaries actually in the workforce, such as nurses, police or ambulance drivers, are obliged to do?

Come to think of it, how is the scene with Yorick’s skull in Hamlet handled? Or are the notions of a skull in a medieval graveyard, or the Ancient Mariner’s “slimy things that crawl with legs upon the slimy sea” too confronting for today’s tender students, living as they do in a world of nuclear weapons and ISIS burning prisoners alive in cages and crucifying Christian girls en masse?

People so divorced from reality that they genuinely cannot bear to hear such things spoken of have surely disqualified themselves from any institute of higher learning, as, it might be said, they have effectively disqualified themselves from life in general.

This is more than a case of some unpleasant adolescents trying their strength against their elders by testing the limits of what they can get away with, and finding, in the cowardice and pusillanimity of the university authorities who let them get away with it, that they are pushing at an open door. It actually seems they are, in some twisted way, sincere, and in a state which is (to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis) “horribly close to innocence”.

No doubt this fad will eventually die away like other silly crazes in the past. But in the meantime it seems more dangerous and harmful than many previous ones. If the university authorities are too paralysed and fearful to do anything, why does the government, which funds the universities with taxpayers’ money, allow such things to carry on? Academic freedom so grossly abused is no freedom, only another, infantile, form of tyranny.

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