Albrechtsen on the “cult of taking offence”

janet-albrechtsen

Janet Albrechtsen

Janet Albrechtsen had an excellent article in The Australian today on the dangerous “cult of taking offence” ($) stifling free expression in the West:

To be sure, America is the home of the modern-day propensity to find offence. If this was a cult called Scientology, progressives would be carefully deconstructing its concerning presence in modernity. But the cult of taking offence is a slyer virus because it is largely unchecked. And it’s running rife on university campuses, where it threatens to do the most damage.

… The cult of taking offence has become a determined game of what Jonathan Rauch has called the “offendedness sweepstakes”, and it keeps lowering the bar on what words, ideas and freethinking analysis are to be mowed down to protect the hold identity politics has over academe. Political correctness, the soul brother of identity politics, may have started out briefly in some quarters as a sweet-sounding search for a very civil utopia imbued with respect for minorities. Now it is the weapon of choice in the pursuit of power and control over ideas, words, books, teaching and much more.

Students seek “safe spaces” to avoid ideas they don’t like and even comedians are not welcome: Chris Rock no longer appears on campus because students are more interested in not offending anyone than sharp humour that may offend. Jerry Seinfeld has said he has been warned to stay off campuses too because they’re too PC.

And the result, best described by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, has been the coddling of the American mind where emotional reasoning now determines the limits of university debates. “A claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness,” they write. “It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong” and must apologise or be punished for committing the offence.

This made-in-America phen­om­e­non is no longer an only-in-America one. Students studying archeology at University College London were recently given permission to leave class if they encounter “historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatising” — in other words, if they are freaked out by bones.

The coddling of the Australian student mind is under way too. Last week at the University of NSW a well-meaning lecturer teaching a class on 20th-century European history told his students he felt obliged to issue a trigger warning about material they would cover. At the same university last year, a lecturer teaching a course on terrorism and religion issued a trigger warning too. Isn’t the trigger in the title? Isn’t history replete with traumatic events?

The Australian asked UNSW, the University of Sydney, Melbourne University, Monash University, Queensland University, Queensland University of Technology and the Australian National University in Canberra about their policies, formal or informal, about trigger warnings. Those that responded issued bland comments about having no formal policy, with some offering statements such as this one from Melbourne University: “We encourage academics to be sensitive to student needs and some may choose to give warnings about confronting content.” Or this from Merlin Crossley, UNSW’s deputy vice-chancellor education: “Some of our academics and teaching teams may choose to provide trigger or content warnings depending on course materials and in some cases possible confidential sensitivities of their students.”

In 2017 Monash University will introduce what it calls “a radical and far-reaching reform of our education and pedagogy” involving an “optional inclusion of content warnings where appropriate”.

… Indeed, there are few signs of Australian academics trying to ward off the American-born disease taking hold on our campuses. Quite the contrary. QUT vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake told this newspaper last month that the university did not choose to be associated with the current public debate about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. That’s unfortunate because section 18C, which makes it unlawful for someone to act in a manner that is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity, is the legislative extension of trigger warnings that stifle open debate and infantilise students.

… Where does it end? That depends on where we start when it comes to freedom of expression, and currently too many self-indulgent Westerners are starting in entirely the wrong place.

Read the full article here.

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