Youth and old age. I’ll say that again. Youth and old age. Are you upset by those terms? Has hearing them reduced you to a quivering wreck in need of a safe space, a cup of sweet tea and a Jammie Dodger?
Well, according to a recent report in The Telegraph, the University of Exeter has drawn up a list of 34 topics of a ‘sensitive’ nature that may require an advance ‘content notice’. And youth and old age have joined other potentially triggering subjects, such as political belief, sex and unemployment.
Deary me. Call me old-fashioned (I won’t be offended) but I thought the point of university was to build up your intellectual muscle by exploring a breadth of concepts with an open mind. To sharpen your intellect on the anvil of knowledge and expect a few sparks to fly in the heat of debate. Not hide in the stationery cupboard at the drop of a hat. (I know, I know, silly thing to say - they don’t have stationery cupboards anymore.)
Content notices in the arts have also been making headlines in the last few days. The latest hails from the folks running the Chichester Festival Theatre. In a bid to guide those patrons wondering whether the Sound of Music was for them, instead of issuing a warning that you’ll have to sit through a fair few schmaltzy old numbers before you get your mitts on an interval G&T, it flags up the musical includes a distressing theme, namely the threat from Nazi Germany.
Surely, if you’re booking for the Sound of Music, you’re aware of the Von Trapp story. And if it turns out you weren’t or couldn’t cope, it begs the question would the Chichester Festival Theatre feel comfortable encouraging you to sing ‘raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens’ on the basis that then you won’t feel so bad?
The artistic and literary hills are alive with the sound of trigger warnings. It’s just been announced that Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse will now carry the disclaimer that the work ‘reflects attitudes of its time’. You don’t say. In that case – and in the name of balance - should Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four bear a warning that the work includes dystopian visions that might well be considered prescient?
TV’s at it too. Recently, I was watching a re-run of Downton Abbey and there was an onscreen message warning of, among other things, scenes of alcohol use. What, pray, were we talking? A couple of pre-dinner sherries in the drawing room before someone dropped a napkin in the Vichyssoise.
The problem with all of this hyper-vigilance re upset and offence is that now we’ve started down this road, where will it end? If you take the argument to its logical (yet inevitably batty) conclusion, every single book, film, painting, song, building, sport, dance, invention, product, foodstuff, could possess some element that could be traced to something that could pose a problem for someone.
I mean what about the fact I’m triggered by the idiocy of some trigger warnings - shouldn’t it follow that such trigger warnings be preceded by a trigger warning? Then again, on a serious note, some mental health professionals have raised concern that the word ‘triggered’ is now applied so widely and lightly, it undermines the real meaning it has for people who live with mental health issues such as PTSD and panic attacks - who experience very real suffering when they are triggered. Something for those penning trigger-happy warnings to ponder.
Another thought. Do those judging the past purely by present-day standards not realise the same might happen to them? After all, what will future generations make of the world we’ve constructed today? For all we know, they might conclude there were incontrovertible signs we were losing our collective mind, then slap a trigger warning on us.
Because the way we’re heading, the only book you’ll be able to write is a very short but sweet eleven word story: ‘Once upon a time, everyone lived happily ever after. The end’. The trouble with that, apart from its obvious lack of a story arc, is that humans don’t live happily all the time. We all make mistakes, endure sadness, encounter problems, hold grievances and live though tragedies, as well as celebrate positivity, fun and success.
What the education system might consider is that helping students to develop resilience, rather than shielding them from reality, might prove more useful in the long run. That adhering to historical accuracy is the best way to understand the past and improve the future. And that one of the true values of art is that it allows us to inhabit a life experience other than our own, albeit temporarily and in our imagination. To that end, a darkened theatre is perhaps the ultimate safe space. A chance to venture beyond the doe-ray-me!-me!-me! space.
If we continue to wrap ourselves up in more and more layers of cultural cottonwool, the risk is instead of creating a world of greater safety, we simply end up living in fear of the thought police. And we know that never ends well. We have been warned.