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4 May, 2020 16:08

Oxford’s calls for MORAL quarantine isn’t only attempt to undermine free speech, it’s DEGRADATION of academic teaching & learning

Oxford’s calls for MORAL quarantine isn’t only attempt to undermine free speech, it’s DEGRADATION of academic teaching & learning

For Oxford University Student Union the current lockdown is not enough. They have voted to impose a quarantine to protect themselves from the threat of “ableist, classist and misogynistic reading lists.”

The new student policy statement, ‘Protection of Transgender, Non-binary, Disabled, Working-class and Women Students from Hatred In University Contexts’ aims to shut down discussion on anything that any of the ‘aforementioned groups’ deem prejudicial.

Supporters of the policy explicitly reject the idea that freedom of speech is an essential feature of academic life. This policy document – passed by the Oxford SU and then mercifully rejected by Oxford University – explicitly states that arguments based on “free speech policy are inapplicable” when students are “required by the University to listen to the speech in question.”

Many commentators will interpret this policy document as yet another example of identity obsessed student activists demanding protection from ideas and words that offend them. However, this policy document goes far further than the original arguments that were made in support of trigger warnings. Early advocates of attaching trigger warnings to literary text that might disturb a student argued that it would protect them from the supposed psychological harm from ideas, views, images and attitudes that may make them feel uncomfortable and possibly traumatised.

Soon calls for a trigger warning acquired a ritualistic quality. These warnings signalled that their authors were ‘aware’, ‘responsible’ and fully on the side of victims of trauma. It became a form of virtue signalling that conveys the message that ‘I feel your pain’ and that you are entitled to feel upset and possibly triggered. It was this performative dimension of trigger warnings that has attracted many university students and academics to embrace it. Though subsequently withdrawn, one of the earliest endorsements for such warnings in a higher education institution came from Oberlin College in November 2013. Its guide for faculty instructed:

Issue a trigger warning.  A trigger warning is a statement that warns people of a potential trigger, so that they can prepare for or choose to avoid the trigger.  Issuing a trigger warning will also show students that you care about their safety.” 

In these guidelines the use of trigger warnings to “show students that you care about safety”is explicitly advanced as one of its key rationales. 

Sponsors of the idea regularly draw attention to their commitment to caring and looking after their students. That the use of these alerts is about much more than triggering trauma is indicated by one of its supporters, who remarked that “students appreciate the concern.” 

Others claimed that “the very act of respecting the students helps them to become open-minded” and “that when students know that you care about their well-being, they’re willing to risk more.” Some assert that the provision of alerts offers“an acknowledgement and sensitivity to particular marginalities in the classroom.” 

In these statements the provision of a trigger warning serves as a gesture of care, respect and sensitivity. From this standpoint, the virtue of awareness is performed through the provision of trigger warnings.

The ritualistic calls for the alerts have steadily expanded to encompass a growing range of experiences. From 2015 onwards, calls for banning controversial speakers from campuses were justified on the grounds that they could trigger students and cause untold psychological harm. At times it seemed that among sections of student activists there was a race to find new outlets for trigger warnings. So delegates at the NUS Women’s Conference were told to use jazz hands because some of the delegates felt anxious during audience applause. The idea that clapping had triggered anxiety and that therefore an age-old practice has to be abolished indicates that the quest for new triggers has acquired a dynamic of its own.

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During the past two years the crusade promoting trigger warnings, has embraced a variety of new causes; the most important of which is to subsume the academic curriculum to the dictates of identity politics. The objective of the Oxford Student Union motion is to undermine the freedom of academics to teach material that they believe is important for understanding their subject matter.

The Student Union wants to protect students from being exposed to arguments with which it disagrees. So the motion passed by the Student Union explicitly condemns a Medical Law and Ethics reading list for its “ableist content.” The motion condemns a reading list, that contains an article that advocates for a moral duty not to have disabled children, and another advocates for the “murder of disabled children after they have been born.” 

Since debates in medical law and ethics are inherently controversial and often focus on matters of life and death it is difficult to imagine what would be left of this subject if it became detached from such troubling and difficult questions. What’s at issue is not merely an attempt to censor and undermine free speech but the degradation of academic teaching and learning. A course on medical ethics that does not disturb and sometimes offend a student’s sensitivity has little to do with the fundamental ethical questions facing humanity.

In a nursery it is entirely legitimate to impose a quarantine against uncomfortable ideas. But is that the model that students at Oxford wish to embrace?

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.