American campus craziness comes to Oxford

by DANIEL HANNAN May 25, 2016

Would you hire a lawyer who couldn't handle references to violence? If not, then be wary of anyone who graduated from Oxford with a law degree in 2016.

Lecturers at my old university are being told that they should issue 'trigger warnings' when discussing 'potentially distressing' cases. I suppose it was only a matter of time before this latest madness spread from American to British campuses.

Oxford undergraduates reading English, for example, are now given a "trigger warning" about Robert Lowell's 1964 poem, "For The Union Dead," because it contains the following stanza about Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry that he led during the Civil War:

Shaw's father wanted no monument

Except the ditch,

Where his son's body was thrown...

Never mind that the poem is about a memorial to the black and white heroes who fought side-by-side against slavery, all in the midst of the civil rights movement of Lowell's day. Context is never a defense in these cases. A student's readiness to take offense trumps the literary canon.

In much the same way, an older student and janitor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis was disciplined in 2008 for racial harassment just because during his break, he had been seen reading a book titled Notre Dame vs. the Klan.

The book is a sympathetic history of Notre Dame students' opposition to a Ku Klux Klan march in South Bend, Ind., in 1924. But one of his co-workers on the school's janitorial staff took offense at the image of a Klansman on the cover, and that was all that counted.

British students are having to learn the bizarre newspeak with which Americans are familiar: "micro-aggression," "safe space," "cultural appropriation."

This is something more than 1980s-style political correctness, though. That movement was, at heart, aggressive and authoritarian, an attempt to enforce certain ideas. This one, by contrast, is self-pitying, whining, fragile. Its starting point is not, "You must think in a certain way", but "I must never be hurt or challenged."

To take another Oxford example, students have been campaigning to tear down a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the 19th-century diamond magnate who endowed the Rhodes Scholarships. A generation ago, radical students would have argued that no monument to imperialism should be left standing.

But young Leftists today are too solipsistic, too introverted, to leave it at that. Instead, they have to claim that they "suffer violence" every time they walk past that block of stone.

For what it's worth, the guano-encrusted statue, which is lodged in a little niche above some permanently closed gates at my old college, Oriel, is barely noticeable. Ninety-nine percent of people walk by without being aware of it. You need to twist your neck unnaturally to see the thing you want to be offended by. But, again, never mind: All that counts are the feelings of the aggrieved.

Things have gotten so bad that President Obama has been driven to intervene, telling students to stop being such wimps, to confront "ridiculous or offensive" opinions rather than hiding from them or disinviting their proponents. But I fear the movement has gone too far to be checked now.

Even as Obama was speaking, Harvard was banning members of off-campus clubs for men only, such as fraternities, from leadership roles. When the University of California includes in its list of micro-aggressions such phrases as "America is the land of opportunity" and "I believe the most qualified person should get the job," we're way past presidential admonitions.

What worries me more than the intolerance is the sheer frailty we're seeing in our young people. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that this campus coddling is the result, among other things, of a series of social changes that began in the 1980s, as parents became less ready to let their kids play outside unsupervised, as playgrounds were made risk-free and, later, as social media encouraged a moralistic and outraged attitude to dissenting opinions.

But what is a university for, if not to expose young people to challenging views? What kind of hyper-sensitive graduates are we sending into the work-place?

A century ago, 18-year-olds were fighting from the Flanders trenches to the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia. Half a century before that, young Americans were dying in ditches with "Col. Shaw and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry" in the Civil War.

Now they're so pitiful that they might be traumatized just by reading about those infantrymen? How, we might ask, would they cope with genuine shocks? Because, be sure, life will offer plenty of those.

Never mind the squeamish lawyers. I fear that some employers will think twice before hiring anyone from this enfeebled generation.

Daniel Hannan is a British writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.

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