Some Australian media outlets have been warning that university students are unduly protected from disturbing ideas. But are these same media outlets actually the ones that can’t handle disturbing ideas?
For years, I’ve been seeing stories in The Australian and elsewhere about problems in universities associated with political correctness (PC). The stories tell of students who demand to be warned about disturbing material in their classes, for example discussions of rape in a class on English literature. The students demand “trigger warnings” so they can avoid or prepare for potentially disturbing content. Detractors call them “snowflake students”: they are so delicate that, like a snowflake, they dissolve at exposure to anything slightly warm.
Former Labor Party leader Mark Latham, for example, referred to “the snowflake safe-space culture of Australian universities.”
Richard King, the author of On Offence: The Politics of Indignation, reviewed Claire Fox’s book I Find that Offensive. King says that the principal target of Fox’s book “is ‘the snowflake generation’, which is to say the current crop of students, especially student activists, who keep up a constant, cloying demand for their own and others’ supervision. ‘Safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘microaggressions’ are all symptoms of this trend.”
I treat these sorts of stories with a fair bit of scepticism. Sure, there are some incidents of over-the-top trigger warnings and demands for excessive protection. But are these incidents representative of what’s happening more generally?
Before accepting that this is a major problem, I want to see a proper study. A social scientist might pick a random selection of universities and classes, then interview students and teachers to find out whether trigger warnings are used, whether class discussions have been censored or inhibited, and so forth. I’ve never heard of any such study.
What remains is anecdote. Media stories are most likely to be about what is unusual and shocking. “Dog bites man” is not newsworthy but “man bites dog” might get a run.
Most of the Australian media stories about trigger warnings and snowflake students are about what’s happening in the US, with the suggestion that Australian students are succumbing to this dire malady of over-sensitivity.
There is a case for trigger warnings. Nevertheless, in thirty years of undergraduate teaching, I never saw any need for them — except when I asked students to use them.
For one assignment in my class “Media, war and peace,” students formed small groups to design an activity for the rest of the class. The activity had to address a concept or theory relating to war or peace, violence or nonviolence. Quite a few student groups chose the more gruesome topics of assassination, torture or genocide, and some of them showed graphic pictures of torture and genocidal killings.
Never did a single student complain about seeing images of torture and killing. Nevertheless, I eventually decided to request that the student groups provide warnings that some images might be disturbing. Thereafter, when groups provided warnings, no students ever excused themselves from the class. I was watching to see their reactions and never noticed anyone looking away.
This is just one teacher’s experience and can’t prove anything general. It seems to show that some Australian students appear pretty tough when it comes to seeing images of violence. Perhaps they have been desensitised by watching news coverage of wars and terrorist attacks.
However, appearances can be deceptive. My colleague Ika Willis pointed out to me that students may hide their distress, and that few would ever complain even if they were distressed. So how would I know whether any of my students were trauma survivors and were adversely affected? Probably I wouldn’t. That is an example of why making generalisations about trigger warnings based on limited evidence is unwise.
On 8 August 2018, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story attacking three academics at Sydney University for what they had said in their classes. The journalist, Chris Harris, wrote about what he had done this way: “The Daily Telegraph visited top government-funded universities in Sydney for a first-hand look at campus life …” This was a euphemistic way of saying that he attended several classes without informing the teachers that he was attending as a journalist, and covertly recorded lectures without permission. Only in a smallish tutorial class, in which the tutor knows all the students, would an uninvited visitor be conspicuous.
Harris then wrote an expose, quoting supposedly outrageous statements made by three teachers. This was a typical example of a beat-up, namely a story based on trivial matters that are blown out of proportion. Just imagine: a teacher says something that, if taken out of context, can be held up to ridicule. Many teachers would be vulnerable to this sort of scandal-mongering.
One issue here is the ethics of covertly attending classes and then writing a story based on statements taken out of context. Suppose an academic covertly went into media newsrooms, recorded conversations and wrote a paper based on comments taken out of context. This would be a gross violation of research ethics and scholarly conventions. To collect information by visiting a newsroom would require approval from a university research ethics committee. Good scholarly practice would involve sending a draft of interview notes or the draft of a paper to those quoted. In a paper submitted for publication, the expectation would be that quotes fairly represent the issues addressed.
Where are the snowflake students?
So when Harris attended classes at universities in Sydney, did he discover lots of snowflake students who demanded to be protected by trigger warnings? He didn’t say, but it is clear that at least two individuals were highly offended: a journalist and an editor! They thought the classroom comments by a few academics were scandalous.
In a story by Rebecca Urban in The Australian following up the Telegraph expose, Fiona Martin’s passing comment about a cartoon by Bill Leak comes in for special attention. According to this story, “The Australian’s editor-in-chief Paul Whittaker described the comment as ‘appalling’ and ‘deeply disrespectful’.”
So apparently News Corp journalists and editors are the real snowflakes, not being able to tolerate a few passing comments by academics that weren’t even intended for them or indeed for anyone outside the classroom. Or perhaps these journalists and editors are outraged on behalf of their readership, who they consider should be alerted to the dangerous and foolish comments being made in university classrooms.
Where in this process did the call for students to be tough and be exposed to vigorous discussion suddenly dissolve?
The contradiction is shown starkly in a 10 August letter to the editor of The Australian by Andrew Weeks. The letter was given the title “Bill Leak’s legacy is his courage in defending the right to free speech”. Weeks begins his letter by saying “I am unsure what is most disturbing about the abuse of sadly departed cartoonist Bill Leak by Fiona Martin.” After canvassing a couple of possibilities, he says “Perhaps it is the fact that Sydney University has supported its staffer, offering lip service in support of freedom of speech when that is exactly what is being endangered by the intolerance characteristic of so many university academics.”
The logic seems to be that freedom of speech of Bill Leak (or those like him) is endangered by an academic’s critical comment in a classroom, and that a university administration should not support academics who make adverse comments about Leak.
Again it might be asked, what happened to the concern about the snowflake generation? The main snowflakes are, apparently, a journalist, an editor and some readers. Perhaps it would be wise in future for journalists to avoid visiting university classrooms so that they and their readers will not be disturbed by the strong views being expressed.
Universities do have serious problems, including a heavy reliance on casual teaching staff and lack of support for international students, both due to lack of money. More students report problems with anxiety and depression. There is also the fundamental issue of the purpose of higher education, which should not be reduced to job preparation. Instead of addressing these issues, News Corp newspapers seem more interested in the alleged danger, apparently most virulent in humanities disciplines, of political correctness.
My focus here is on an apparent contradiction or discrepancy in treatments of PC and “snowflake students” in The Australian and the Daily Telegraph. While decrying the rise of the so-called snowflake generation, journalists and editors seemed more upset than most students by comments made in university classrooms.
One other point is worth mentioning. If you want to inhibit vigorous classroom discussions of contentious issues, there’s no better way than spying on these discussions with the aim of exposing them for public condemnation. This suggests the value of a different sort of trigger warning: “There’s a journalist in the classroom!”
Further reading (mass media)
Josh Glancy, “Rise of the snowflake generation,” The Australian, 8-9 September 2018, pp. 15, 19.
Christopher Harris, “Degrees of hilarity” and “Bizarre rants of a class clown,” Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2018, pp. 4-5.
Amanda Hess, “How ‘snowflake’ became America’s inescapable tough-guy taunt,” New York Times Magazine, 13 June 2017.
Richard King, “Fiery blast aimed at ‘snowflake generation’,” The Australian, 1 April 2017, Review p. 22.
Mark Latham, “The parties are over,” Daily Telegraph, 9 January 2018, p. 13.
Bill Leak, “Suck it up, snowflakes,” The Australian, 11 March 2017, p. 15.
Rebecca Urban, “Uni backs staffer on secret suicide advice,” The Australian, 9 August 2018, p. 7; (another version) “University of Sydney stands by media lecturer following Bill Leak attack,” The Australian, 8 August 2018, online.
Further reading (scholarly)
Sigal R. Ben-Porath, Free Speech on Campus (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
Emily J. M. Knox (ed.), Trigger Warnings: History, Theory, Context (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).
Thanks to several colleagues for valuable discussions and to Tonya Agostini, Xiaoping Gao, Lynn Sheridan and Ika Willis for comments on a draft of this post. Chris Harris and Paul Whittaker did not respond to invitations to comment.