Saturday 10 December 2016

Young, well educated - and permanently offended

Universities used to be bastions of heated debate, free speech and challenging ideas. But a spate of college crackdowns on controversial speakers prompts our writer to ask: just why are millennials so sensitive?

Published 11/11/2015 | 02:30

Talk: Germaine Greer was the subject of a petition by Cardiff University students who deemed the feminist 'mysogynistic' leading up to a planned talk at the university
Talk: Germaine Greer was the subject of a petition by Cardiff University students who deemed the feminist 'mysogynistic' leading up to a planned talk at the university

Narcissistic, pampered and lazy are just some of the criticisms levelled at Millennials - the generation born after 1980. Contrarily, they have also been described as socially responsible, environmentally conscious and less materialistic.

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So which one are they? Entitled brats or social change-makers? That's a matter of opinion. Or at least it was...

The reputation of this generation has taken a nosedive recently as a series of campus censorship stories have emerged.

The college-going Millennials that we read about these days are over-sensitive, relentlessly PC and online petition-friendly.

The most recent of these incidents occurred at Cardiff University when thousands of students, and non-students, signed a petition on change.org calling for the ban of a lecture by feminist Germaine Greer.

According to protestors, Greer has "misogynistic" views on transgender women and "hosting a speaker with such problematic and hateful views towards marginalised and vulnerable groups is dangerous".

Greer didn't take too kindly to the backlash. The author of The Female Eunuch initially pulled out of the event entitled 'Women and Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century' before changing her mind a few days later.

She didn't change her opinion, though. "I do not know why universities cannot hear unpopular views and think about what they mean," she said.

The lecture will go ahead as planned and the irony of one of the world's leading feminist thinkers being described as "misogynistic" has been duly noted. This isn't an isolated incident. Earlier last month, radical feminist Julie Bindel was banned from giving a talk at the University of Manchester's Student Union.

Officials worried that her "transphobic" views would contravene the institution's "safe space policy".

As it happens, Bindel was invited to partake in a talk entitled 'Does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?' The irony isn't lost here either.

Examples of campus censorship abound. In September, student union officials at the University of East Anglia banned "racist" sombreros that were handed out to students by a local Tex-Mex restaurant.

Students were told that they violated strict rules regarding "cultural appropriation" which, very broadly speaking, describes a culture borrowing elements from a culture that it once oppressed.

Elsewhere, the University College London Student Union banned a Nietzsche reading group over fears that it may encourage fascist ideology, while an Oxford University student magazine called No Offence was banned from the annual Freshers' Fair on the grounds that it may "cause offence". Police later confiscated 150 copies of the magazine when the editor continued to distribute it.

In February, online magazine Spiked compiled the first-ever nationwide study of the state of free speech in campuses across the UK: They found that four-out-of-five universities have restrictions on it.

It should also be noted that the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK operates a 'No Platform Policy' which denies a platform to certain people, in particular those whose opinions are considered to be fascist or racist.

Closer to home, Iranian human rights activist Maryam Namazie pulled out of a talk she was due to give in Trinity College earlier this year. She claims college security officials imposed "certain conditions" and suggested that her views would antagonise Muslim students. "It is no surprise why we see so many young people turn to ISIS when no discussion is allowed to take place without concerns that Islamists might be offended," she remarked.

This isn't the first time a talk has been cancelled at the university. Trinity College's Philosophical Society withdrew an invitation to the then BNP leader Nick Griffin for similar reasons in 2011. Officials said that they were "not satisfied that the general safety and well-being of staff and students can be guaranteed". A year later, the Government and Politics Society at UCC withdrew an invitation to Griffin for the same reason.

Perhaps the most widespread university ban of recent years was the prohibition of Blurred Lines from the airwaves of student union bars.

The song by Robin Thicke was banned by almost 20 student unions over fears that it reinforced the "grey area" consent myth.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, writing in The Atlantic, describe this new wave of excessive moral vigilance as "vindictive protectiveness".

The authors point to the rise of 'trigger-warnings' - university professors giving students prior warning about course material that may 'trigger' traumatic memories.

They also consider the hidden impact of 'microaggressions', which is the term used to describe unintended discrimination; for example asking an African-American where he actually comes from, the implication being that he is not a real American.

According to Lukianoff and Haidt, some of the recent campus decisions "border on the surreal". For instance, in April, the student association at Brandeis University in Massachusetts removed an art installation that raised awareness of microaggressions amid fears that the content of the installation would offend students or trigger past traumas.

Could Irish universities become as painstakingly PC? Dr Matt Bowden, a Sociology lecturer in DIT, isn't so sure.

"American society is comprised of a multiplicity of ethnic groups that are entitled to a hyphenated identity: 'African-American', 'Irish-American' and so on," he explains.

"It is hardly surprising that these identities and the complex politics of identity would then get played out in the campus environment."

This isn't just playing out on college campuses, though.

We're in the era of outrage and many of us now get now offended by things that we barely even noticed five years ago. Twitter followers are reminded to 'check their privilege'; Halloween costumes are spot-checked for cultural appropriation.

In April an advertisement asking "Are you beach body ready?" was removed from the London Tube because it was deemed "offensive" and thought to "promote an unhealthy body image".

Would the advertisement have received the same reaction just 12 months earlier? More to the point, is this real outrage or an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon? Essayist Tim Kreider coined the term 'outrage porn' to describe the moral showboating that often goes hand-in-glove with outrage.

"Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out," he wrote in an opinion column on the subject. And it's even more insidious than most vices because we don't even consciously acknowledge that it's a pleasure".

The dark side of outrage porn is the witch hunt-style public shaming that often goes with it.

As Jon Ronson highlighted in So You've Been Publicly Shamed, people have been hung, drawn and quartered over one ill-advised tweet.

The other, less discussed, offshoot of 'outrage porn' is the power it has to make opinionated and outspoken types become cautious about taking risks.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld says many of his contemporaries don't play on college campuses anymore because they're "too PC". Fellow comedian Chris Rock said he stopped playing college campuses because he found the audiences "too conservative".

I recently spoke to a leading comedic actor/writer (the interview is under embargo so he'll have to remain anonymous) about the challenges that 'outrage porn' present.

"By making things increasingly taboo, you're encouraging people to become resentful of other groups," he said. "It just makes you not want to do anything... or be super-offensive."

The phenomenon has been observed by many more influential thinkers.

Author Bret Easton Ellis calls Millenials 'Generation Wuss' while actor Clint Eastwood knows them as 'The Pussy Generation'.

Even Dr Phil is concerned. "We're going to raise a generation where they're going to try and please everybody," he says. "You can't please everybody. Somebody is going to have a problem with whatever you do."

Communications expert Terry Prone of the Communications Clinic believes that the decisions being made on college campuses promote black-and-white thinking.

"Polarising rather than compromise/conversion/learning is what happens as a result of this kind of humourless self-righteous Us and Them spat happening in public," she says.

It's a point echoed by Mary Ham in End of Discussion. "If we cannot live and work alongside people with whom we deeply disagree," she writes, "we are finished as a liberal society."

Ham goes on to describe research at New York University which shows how the us-vs-them mindset fundamentally skews our perspective.

"Once this partisanship mentality kicks in, the brain almost automatically pre-filters facts -even noncontroversial ones - that offend our political sensibilities".

Millennials ought to think about the far-reaching consequences of their knee-jerk liberalism, or at least question where this sense of entitlement comes from.

"The idea that we have somehow inherited or otherwise acquired the right never to be offended is very dangerous and weakening to us as a people," says author Joseph O'Connor.

"It's related to the absolute nonsense that we are entitled to be happy, another fallout from the therapy generation."

Don't forget that Millennials have been born into a world that believes a positive mental attitude can conquer all.

However, the trouble with bright-side thinking is that it can censor what is perceived to be mentally strenuous.

This generation has the power to effect change - as the recent spate of campus censorship incidents prove - but one wonders if that power has been misdirected.

Irish Independent

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