Student Sensibilities

‘From the point of view of anyone seeking safety and comfort the whole business of life is very badly organised’

The Outsider's Diary
All smiles: Hillary Clinton earlier this year (photo: Hillary For Iowa CC BY-SA 2.0)

On the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Danish cartoons the country’s Free Speech Society invited four speakers, including Mark Steyn and me, to commemorate the occasion. After the deadly attack on a free speech event in Copenhagen last February, the only place secure enough to house the event was the country’s Parliament. Afterwards I learned that in anticipation of the now traditional terrorist attack, both the US State Department and UK Foreign Office issued official warnings to their citizens not to go near the Parliament building on the day — not a piece of advice they had passed on to the speakers.  In any case all fears were unnecessary and several hours of discussion on free speech, cartoons, Islam and the migration crisis played to a full and happily secure house.

I told the audience that apart from the realisation that free speech isn’t that popular, the other thing I had learnt in the last ten years is how rapidly fear spreads. As if on cue, the restaurant we were meant to be having dinner at cancelled when the police went around to do a preliminary security check. We all ended up at a party in a bar that felt slightly like a party at the end of the world — and none the worse for it. Shots of a quite foul Danish spirit, much beer and wine, the dense, uncommon smog of cigarette and cigar smoke, and at some point the opening of a bottle of champagne with a sword all played their part. Only the security guards at the door remained unmoved.

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A few days later I was at Wellesley College near Boston for more of the same (discussion, that is). One major issue was the now heightened form of student sensibility which demands “trigger warnings” before reading anything and a “safe space” to protect students against uncomfortable ideas. This phenomenon assumes that a very large number of students suffer some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A girl who was hospitalised after reading a novel is cited by way of example. One professor says that 56 per cent of American students have self-referred for stress, depression, PTSD and other mental illnesses. I feel unsympathetic towards this societal breakdown, and say so.

One serious and thoughtful student invites me to consider that what I believe to be efforts to limit free speech is in fact more a matter of “linguistic conscientiousness”, requiring advance consideration of the harm one’s words could do to vulnerable people (the gay, the disabled, the female, victims of genocide and kidnap and so on). To some extent I understand this concern. When speaking to different audiences we all slightly moderate our speech, but these students are growing up in a world where technology has eradicated this divide.

You might say something to one audience which is as “linguistically conscientious” as possible, yet find someone has tweeted a remark (reported correctly or otherwise) and someone in the world has taken offence.  Professor Tim Hunt — formerly of University College London — could tell anyone about that. Equally, one can write a piece for a cultured and worldly readership like that of Standpoint, only for one’s words to find their way to some illiterate with a grudge. This is the world today’s students are growing up in and one result is that they are beginning to distrust not just language, but ideas.

Nevertheless, I had news for my listeners. The world has many problems from which one cannot be protected. Birth is one, with the steps preceding and following it by no means devoid of incident and disturbance.  Life itself presents a challenge, and then there is the ultimately unavoidable question of death. My point then, to my student audience, was that from the point of view of anyone seeking safety and comfort the whole business of life is very badly organised. I like to think that somewhere down the road this news will assist them.

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For me, the word “bogus” hangs about Wellesley’s most famous alumnus like a fog. Hillary and her husband Bill Clinton are nonpareils in their ability to say things that just don’t quite ring true. Their claim that Bill slept on a sofa after the Monica Lewinsky affair (were there really no spare bedrooms in the White House?) might be considered a high-water mark. But even by this standard Mrs Clinton delivered a corker during the first Democratic candidates television debate. Getting competitive with the socialist candidate Bernie Sanders over how tough each would be with Wall Street, Hillary said, “I represented Wall Street as a senator from New York, and I went to Wall Street in 2007 — before the big crash — and I basically said, ‘Cut it out!’”

Ignoring for a moment the astronomical sums Hillary and her family have made from hedge funds and others, so far as I know nobody has yet asked her, “When did this happen? Who were you speaking to? And where precisely were you standing on Wall Street when you issued this command?”