It’s not that people are more sensitive these days. Some things aren’t funny anymore | Marthe Gill
JThe idea that young people are exceptionally pampered and go to great lengths to protect themselves from the realities of life – to the detriment of the rest of us – has long been ingrained in the minds of the nation, where in some cases , it seems to have hardened into an immovable plate.
I was struck by an interview with ex-Python Terry Gilliam. After years of irreverent truth (recent views: #MeToo was a witch hunt, Harvey Weinstein’s victims were ‘adults making choices’, he himself was a black lesbian), Gilliam had suddenly met a new generation. censored, the first of its kind, who was just too soft and closed-minded to take it. They couldn’t handle his truth.
“In universities, when a lecturer comes in, the ideas are so disturbing that the students have to go to a safe room, where they can hold hands and recover from those ideas,” he said.
You’ll have heard it before: Gilliam is following in the footsteps of John Cleese and many other comedians and writers (last week, it was novelist Anthony Horowitz’s turn to lament the problem in an interview). A Telegraph the editorial complains about a trigger warning on a French class as proof that students are overprotected. It is worth challenging because several mistakes are made at once.
First: the inherent contradiction. Can a generation be both fatally unprepared for the real world and so powerful that they can shape that world entirely in their own image? Isn’t it actually people like Gilliam who are ill-prepared for the realities of today’s world?
There is also a misunderstanding about how young people are pampered. Growing up on the internet and in a country where the groups of politicians who win elections hold very different views from the typical “student liberal,” young people have perhaps never been so exposed to alternative thinking. Debates of the kind Gilliam may have first encountered in college raged around them all their lives. They’re also much more accustomed to what you might call “shattering content” than any college course. Extreme porn, racist rants, sexist trolling – all of this will be deeply familiar to those currently in college. No wonder the concept of “draw the line somewhere” appeals more to this generation than previous ones.
It is of course deeply alarming that books have been removed from reading lists because they might be offensive, two cases of which have been discovered in a Time survey last week. But trigger warnings are not censorship; in fact, they can help broaden the audience for certain texts. Those who have had an unpleasant personal experience – rape, racism, homophobia – will always have struggled to handle debates on these topics with the kind of unbiased intellectual rigor that university courses demand. It is a good thing that lecturers and tutors are now aware of this obstacle. This should help learning, not hinder it.
We should also note that our time is not only censored. There was never a time in history when comedians like Gilliam could just say whatever they wanted. Society has always had its taboos and they have always been respected. Even when Gilliam was at the height of his powers, he would have been kicked out for blacking out, for example, or for denying the Holocaust. (“You can’t say anything these days”, you can imagine a disgruntled artist saying like The Black and White Minstrel Show was launched off the BBC, just four years after the last series of Monthy Python’s flying circus.) Gilliam longs for a time that never was.
Admittedly, certain types of taboos seem to accumulate in the West. In progressive societies, ridiculing certain oppressed groups tends to become increasingly taboo as these groups gain status, civil rights and respect. Racism, homophobia, sexism and ableism have all gone out of fashion. (These kinds of changes have always tended to be led by young liberal groups. Gilliam should note that students have always been more censored than others when it comes to offending minorities.)
But other kinds of taboos are loosening, those once imposed by dominant groups and societal orthodoxies (and those that proliferate under repressive regimes). Jokes about Christianity, the monarchy and sex, including women joking about their body parts and bodily functions, have become less and less taboo. Like swearing.
Frank Skinner recently recalled a concert in the 80s where the host apologized to the crowd after Skinner played some risque material about sex, before launching into a series of racist jokes that brought down the home. This type of change has also always tended to be driven by young people. It is possible that the number of taboos in circulation at any time is in fact neutral, even if their topics change. Gilliam and his colleagues should consider that the sensation they feel is not canceled but simply old-fashioned.
Should taboos exist? It is clear that they are extremely harmful to freedom of expression and contribute to hindering debates on which society has not yet made a decision. Progressive societies should resist them as much as possible. But there is still a place for them. There are times in history when certain issues and topics become taboo not because something interesting is hidden there or because people are afraid of it, but because a debate is downright closed. One side won.
Is racism good? Did the Holocaust take place? Was Weinstein a monster? Should black lesbians be ridiculed by Gilliam? In Britain, these debates kicked the bucket. They got rid of their mortal shell and joined the invisible choir. These are old debates. Tediously reviving them is actually detrimental to free speech (and offensive) because it suggests that public debate can never progress. All questions are open, forever.