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Blinkers please, we’re Americans

A new wave of intellectual intolerance is emerging among young American social activists that threatens to take political correctness, an unwelcome export from the United States if you ask me, to new levels of bigotry.

Recent news reports made me seriously worried about the mind frame of some U.S. college students, who are the next generation to influence the western world with their version of Orwellian newspeak. A minority of students on American campuses now requests that teachers should provide “trigger warnings” for novels that could contain traumatising themes and scenes.

Do readers of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice need to be warned of anti-Semitism? Should classics students be allowed to skip the works of Sophocles because they may be traumatised by Oedipus’s complicated love life? Would you be shocked if you read that someone wrote the word “negro” in the segregated America of the 1960s? Martin Luther King, Jr, did use that word in his 1963 “I have a dream” speech, and it was fine at the time.

Now you are suspicious if you write that someone is black. You need to write African American if you want to be politically correct. And I am not a white man anymore, I’m a Caucasian. Yes, the language evolves, perceptions change, and I’m relaxed about it, if bemused from time to time. What we need to remember is that a book is steeped in its time, and we should not seek to warn people against reading it or censor it in anyway. What’s next? Create book bonfires as in 1930s Nazi Germany?

At Oberlin College in Ohio, a draft guide was circulated that would have asked professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabuses. The guide said they should flag anything that might “disrupt a student’s learning” and “cause trauma,” including anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender (a form of discrimination known as cissexism) or who uses a wheelchair.

“Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” the guide said.

The draft guide was dismissed by professors but will be discussed again in a few months.

The New York Times wrote that the debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.

But an article in The Times of London this week suggested that some young Americans no longer want the other guy’s view. The Internet was supposed to open people’s minds. Yet it’s having exactly the opposite effect, the article said.

It’s commencement speech season in America, when big names are invited to address new college graduates. But, increasingly, protests among either right-wing or left-wing students against planned speeches on U.S. campuses have resulted in dozens of withdrawals.

The best publicised was the decision last month of Brandeis University to rethink the honorary degree awarded to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born women’s rights activist, after a campaign against her for her negative views on militant Islam.  What’s going on here?

The same happened with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, at Rutgers. Whose fault is this? Maybe the Internet.

Many Americans, like a lot of people in the rest of the western world, have become used to getting information on social media websites rather than traditional news sources such as newspapers, radio and television. They find what they want to find when they want to find it and are shocked when some contrary piece of  knowledge is directed at them. And the last thing they want to do is sit down and listen to views they don’t share. It would annoy them.

In his book The Signal and the Noise, American statistician and election forecaster Nate Silver writes that the information age has brought with it what appears to be an ominous downside: “The instinctual shortcut that we take when we have ‘too much information’ is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.”

It seems some people growing up with the Internet don’t want conflicting views; they want conformity, no debate, but maybe the occasional conspiracy theory, if it suits their frame of mind. It helps them handle reality. 

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