Who needs Clean Reader when you’ve got trigger warnings?

Guy Pierce

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A new app which allows you to cleanse your favourite books of any bad language has been met with fierce criticism. Clean Reader is the brainchild of a Christian couple in the US. Working on smartphones, tablets and laptops, the app works by scanning ebooks for swear words and sexually explicit language, replacing them with ‘cleaner’ words. Author Joanne Harris has criticised the app, stating that it would ‘impose a Christian agenda’ on readers and ‘completely misunderstand[s] the nature of fiction writing’. Harris even went as far as to liken it to Nazi book burning: ‘Well, we’ve been down this road before… It ends with burning libraries and erasing whole civilisations from history. Is that where we want to go? Not. Fucking. Likely’, she wrote.

Last month, Clean Reader decided, after considerable pressure, to remove all of the ebooks from its online catalogue. So should we chalk this up as a victory for rationalism, open-mindedness and intellectual robustness? Well, let’s keep the champagne on ice for now and take a closer look at this story.

While, yes, Clean Reader represents a kind of religious censoriousness – a desire to blot out sinful words for fear of being affected by them – the move to have the app shut down is shows a similar intolerance – an intolerance of more traditional worldviews. After all, we’re free not to buy Clean Reader. And if you want to see an example of books being blotted out for the sake of protecting delicate sensibilities, you need look no further than that supposed bastion of free-thinking, the university.

Universities are thought of, traditionally, as places of free expression and intellectual experimentation, where ideas are thought about, and fought over, to achieve a better understanding of the world. However, the rise of trigger warnings on campus is quickly undermining the university’s traditional function. As Tiffany Jenkins has reported previously on spiked, trigger warnings, which alert students to potentially upsetting content in books and documents, are now prevalent on university campuses in the US and UK. As Jenkins argues, the idea behind them is that books can upset or damage those who have experienced past trauma. However, the vast expansion of trigger warnings, and the call for them to be applied to all texts, suggests that the students’ union heads now imposing them think all students are somehow vulnerable to being upset or corrupted by reading certain texts.

Trigger warnings hold the university student, not as a free-thinking, intellectually robust individual, able to argue and debate, but as a vulnerable child that must be protected from the evils of the world, even if that evil is entirely fictitious. This clearly has parallels with the ideas and intentions behind Clean Reader. Both trigger warnings and Clean Reader hold people as particularly vulnerable in the face of mere words. The only difference between them is that one springs from a traditional, religious ideology, and the other from the new, ban-happy orthodoxy that is developing on university campuses.

I agree with Harris that people should not be encouraged to shelter themselves from insulting or sexually explicit words. But we should be consistent. The idea that words, regardless of their context, are harmful is not confined to the religious. We need to remake the case that we are free-thinking, rational and intellectually robust individuals. And the place to start is the university.

Guy Pierce is a writer and researcher based in London.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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