There seems to be a serious lack of nuance in the so-called ‘culture war’. In recent weeks I keep seeing, from right-wing commentators, outrage at the supposed censorship that is going on at UK Universities. And what is the specific censorship that these commentators are responding to? It is the ‘trigger warnings’ that English departments are placing on items on their reading lists. Trigger warnings! Much of the outcry concerns trigger-warnings on Harry Potter (and the philosophers stone, I believe) by J K Rowling and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
The Harry Potter case, on the ‘Approaches to Literature’Module at the University of Chester, has drawn criticism. The tendency here is to act as though these trigger warnings somehow amount to censorship. A Tory MP said; ‘Katniss Everdeen may have lived in a dystopian world in The Hunger Games. Some may argue that our universities are creating one for our students too.” The reference to The Hunger Games is because along with Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and The Northern Lights also had the trigger warning applied to them. Joanna Williams, writing in The Telegraph, said; ‘such warnings are no longer about safeguarding the vulnerable, they are red flags designed to highlight politically controversial content.’ She added; ‘when even Harry Potter is considered dangerous, what next?’
This criticism feels very overboard. First of all, there seems to be no logical reason that could link the three texts in question as being political controversial; I know that Rowling is a supposed victim of ‘cancel culture’ and has faced much criticism recently, but Pullman and Collins? Their books? I don’t see the logic here, and Williams doesn’t really explain how or why these trigger warnings are politically motivated. But also, no-one is saying that Harry Potter is ‘dangerous’, and there’s nothing remotely dystopian about this, for the simple fact that no-one is trying to persuade anyone else not to read the books. All that is happening is a heads-up is being given on some of the difficult themes that may be come up in discussion, so that students know what to expect and can reach out to their lecturers if need be. You may disagree whether this is necessary or sensible, but to consider it in the same light as censorship is a touch melodramatic.
There’s a slightly more interesting discussion surrounding Nineteen Eighty-Four. In a rather hysterical column for Spiked, Brendan O’Neill addresses the trigger-warning on the book at the University of Northampton, leading with the sentence; ‘I suppose it was only a matter of time before the woke mob came for Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ This is what O’Neill wants us to believe is happening – the left is trying to cancel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The left knows that Orwell exposes all of the ills of cancel culture and censorship, and so is ‘coming for it’. He claims, in gross hyperbole; ‘Yes, woke hysteria has now reached such a crescendo that even the 20th century’s most famous warning about tyranny is falling victim to its tyrannous habits.’
Again, this buys into the idea, as with the previous example, that trigger warnings in some ways are comparable to, or at least a step in the direction of, censorship, and so akin of the things that Orwell describes in the book. This is again a huge overreaction – no-one is stopping you from reading the book, no-one is even trying to tell you not to read it. It is merely a warning that the book contains, as it does, material that readers may find ‘offensive and upsetting.’ ‘Isn’t that the point?’ asked Joanna Williams*. Well yes, we ought to find totalitarianism offensive. But I would wager, a point these commentators seem to ignore, that the ‘offensive and upsetting material’ is not the totalitarian society depicted, but specific scenes of violence and torture that appear in the book. Now, this isn’t saying that you should be offended, merely that you may. It’s not saying you shouldn’t read the books – I for one would never not read a book because it may ‘offend’ me, but others are different. It is merely helping readers make a more informed decision as to whether they want to read the book, if they feel that they don’t have the disposition to read some of Orwell’s scenes. Perhaps ‘trigger warning’ is not the right phrase and we should adopt something more neutral instead like ‘content warning’, as ‘trigger warning’ may imply ‘an action or reaction is required or inevitable’. But guess what? Then we get headlines like; ‘even the word ‘trigger’ is just too triggering for university students.’ We cannot win, it seems.
O’Neill’s main point, though, is that this attempted censorship shows the lack of self-awareness in our society, and young, woke students should be reading Nineteen Eighty-Four instead of trying to censor it**. He claims that if there were to be any trigger warning on it, it should be; ‘Warning, woke student: you’ll recognise yourself in these pages’. This is simply untrue, and O’Neill has to make some very grand exaggerations to sustain this argument. Most of the left, of the woke students O’Neill mentions, would read Nineteen Eighty-Four with the same horror as Liberals and Conservatives. To compare the actions of a group like Stalin’s cabal, who controlled the apparatus of the state, to the actions of ‘woke’ students who ‘twittermob’, use ‘woke’ language, and respect the identity of transgender people, overestimates the power that the supposed woke sect has and ignores the difference between torture and execution on the one hand, and being attacked on twitter on the other. Even the worst actions of the ‘woke’ left like online abuse and real-life harassment, which are a much less frequent occurrences and characteristics of a much smaller group than O’Neill implies (and are also not limited to the woke left), can be criticised legitimately without invoking the idea of Stalin and without smearing these characteristics onto a larger group. And let’s be honest, a good degree of the ‘twittermobbing’ that people like O’Neill complain about is legitimate criticism, just others making use of their free speech to criticise those they disagree with. This may be overwhelming collectively for those who are ‘mobbed’, but individuals can and should be able to criticise who they want.
Let me reiterate: trigger warnings are not censorship, not censorship-lite, not a step on the way to censorship. You may not like them, you may think they are unnecessary and we ought to just read the books, but no-one is telling anyone to not read any books. Let us not pretend there’s any censorship going on here. And yes, ‘woke’ students (and non-woke, non-students) ought to read Nineteen Eighty-Four, because it is a damn good book, but I’d wager they won’t be recognising themselves in it. To imply they would be is, like the criticism of trigger warnings, a serious exaggeration.
* The previously linked column in The Telegraph by Joanna Williams.
** The previously linked column in Spiked by Brendan O’Neill.