the way we live now
Christopher Smith’scolumn this month is not to be shared with the children
The numberof people around who appear to be perpetually outraged seems to grow and grow. Private Eye printed a cartoon last month showing some ropey-looking demonstrators with placards saying things like ‘No platform!' as one says to another, ‘It's so exhausting being offended all the time’. Indeed. Our neighbouring church school hit the national press last month because their new Head asked the children to walk in a particular way along the corridors, to keep a lid on the chaos that sometimes ensues as they rush out to play. Certain parents decided that this was an outrageous affront to the freedom of expression of their little darlings and contacted the local rag and The Guardian. By the following day the story was in all the nationals and on News at Ten.
This time last year, a hapless clergyperson in Norwich got into trouble for letting slip in a primary school assembly that Father Christmas didn't really exist. Now, I hate to spill the beans in a national magazine; but that clergyperson, a non-stipendiary curate called Margaret McPhee, was in fact correct. Father Christmas is not a real person, and at this time of year we all collude in a national conspiracy to conceal that fact. I suppose we like the excitement generated among our children when they think that their Christmas presents arrive by magic. No child will sustain that belief for ever, but a number of the Norfolk parents managed to confect such violent outrage that some told their children that Mrs McPhee was a liar, in order to perpetuate the lie that Christmas presents are brought down the chimney by a fat man in a Coca-Cola costume who gets round the entire world in one night. ‘I had to tell my children that the vicar was a liar basically, so I could keep my children believing’, someone called Tara Fiske was quoted by the Daily Mail. What have we come to?
Confected outrage is in my mind because I have been following a tale of campus japes in America, at the University of Yale. Or, rather, a tale of the suppression of japes at this respected seat of learning. Apparently, American students nowadays find the whole business of growing up quite difficult, and, for all I know, it may be just as bad in this country. But they evidently become anxious if their pre-existing ideas and world view are challenged and they encounter something they don't like: an odd attitude to a university education, I'd say. And at Yale, there is an official body called the Intercultural Affairs Council. Now inevitably, if you create a body like that, it will find it necessary to do things, and something the Intercultural Affairs Council does is issue memoranda ‘advising' students on how to behave so as not to upset anyone else. And in time for Halloween, which you and I know as the eve of All Saints' Day, but which American students use as an excuse to dress up in daft costumes and throw parties, the Council issued a memorandum saying that anyone who elected to wear ‘feathered headdresses, turbans, "war paint" or modifying skin tone' would be guilty of ‘making poor decisions’.
That, of course, is a coded ban on anything non-PC; or, as they put it, anything that somebody else thinks ‘disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression’. So perhaps you shouldn't go to the deanery Christmas party dressed as a cardinal, and neither should you go to the Saturday of the Edgbaston test match in an ill-fitting polka-dot dress and curly green wig. Not if you're a bloke, anyway.
Fortunately (though not, as it turned out, for her) the wife of the master of one of Yale's residential colleges realised what nonsense this all was and issued her own memo suggesting that young adults at university might be capable of making their own decisions and that those who chose to be offended might be able to deal with the matter in an adult way. ‘Talk to each other’, she suggested. ‘Free speech and the ability to tolerate difference are the hallmarks of a free and open society.'
This seemed so shocking to some of the trainee professional offence-takers at Yale that they protested, and the hapless academic sallied forth to defend his wife's email and apologise for anything they might have done wrong. And the reason I know about this whole ridiculous saga is that a girl was caught on camera swearing and screaming at him like a banshee that he should resign. Yale, she had previously thought, was a ‘safe space' where she would never be challenged, still less offended, and he had failed in his duty to protect this environment for her. He was, therefore, ‘disgusting’.
How, one wonders, are these young people going to make their way outside the academy? To whom will they go running as they enter the world of work? When they read a book, who will supply the ‘trigger warnings' necessary to give notice of things that they might find distressing? Last year, some law students at Harvard (another top-drawer American university) asked their tutors not to teach them the law relating to rape in case someone should be traumatised in the process.
American academics are becoming terrified of their own students. As so often in the modern world, it feels as though the lunatics have taken over the asylum, as people search for ‘micro-aggressions' to be offended by. Oh, and look – I've just done it. It's off to the mad-house for me...ND
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