September 30, 2016

Source: Bigstock

Again, it’s pathetic. How have we come to this? How have we come to a point where students of literature are thought to need “€œtrigger warnings,”€ notices put on the top of an assigned syllabus or book to alert them to the presence of material that may disturb them? Better not open, let alone read, any Shakespeare play or novel by Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, or Faulkner. There is sure to be something there that might wound your tender sensibility, some idea that might dangerously and painfully prick your sense of self, some viewpoint that might go against your “€œdearly and closely held beliefs.”€ The idea that reading and education are valuable when they bring you to the point of questioning what you believe is evidently anathema, a disgusting relic of a patriarchal society. And so our young people are treated as if they were infants. Worse still, it seems that many of them are happy to be treated as such.

How have we come to this sorry state in which students, who are supposed to be among the brightest of their generation, are evidently afraid of the adult world, in which arguments are advanced and challenged, and opinions are questioned and must be defended? Many blame the cult of political correctness, perhaps with reason, even though, at an early stage anyway, what is called political correctness was little more than the ordinary good manners that we oldies were taught as children: Think what you like, but remember that there’s a time and place for saying what you think, and try to avoid being rude. Yet now it does seem that political correctness has gone haywire, and opinions must not be expressed, certain words not used, if there is a risk that they might hurt someone, somewhere, sometime.

Yet I wonder if there is another, perhaps more sinister, reason. I wonder whether young people who have spent much of their childhood and early adolescence shut away with their computer in their bedroom are simply unfit for social intercourse, for the give-and-take of argument. So their opinions and their sense of themselves become entrenched, and any questioning of what they think and believe alarms and hurts them, feels indeed like a bombardment.

Thinking this, I remember my late friend William MclIvanney, the best Scottish novelist of the past half century, recalling how, growing up in a working-class home in the west of Scotland, family mealtimes were a perpetual ding-dong argument, in which any expressed idea was questioned, challenged, examined, and had to be defended. Statements had to be justified, but opposing viewpoints given a fair hearing. Education takes place in the home as well as in the classroom, and there are two golden rules: first, that no opinion that you can”€™t defend is worth a docken; second, that argument teaches you that you may be mistaken.

A society in which people are not prepared to listen to views they find disagreeable, not ready to grant others the right of free speech, not willing to be open to persuasion, is a society that is decadent and stupid. It is also likely to be humorless, a place where jokes are first regarded with suspicion and then forbidden.


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