The truth about trigger warnings

They have nothing to do with protecting the ‘vulnerable’ from distress.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture Identity Politics

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A lot of fuss has been made about trigger warnings in recent years – and for good reason. They are censorious and infantile, reflecting an era in which people are keen to cast imperious judgement on anything slightly objectionable – especially if the book, film or play in question is from the past, a place where everybody was supposedly nasty and stupid. They also reflect an emergent generation that is hypersensitive and quick to burst into tears.

The latest to add their voice of objection to trigger warnings is Dame Judi Dench. In an interview with the Radio Times earlier this week, she suggested that people of a nervous disposition, and who think they might require trigger warnings before a play, should simply stay at home. She was particularly exercised to discover the proliferation of trigger warnings before Shakespeare plays in London’s theatres.

‘Do they do that? My God, it must be a pretty long trigger warning before King Lear or Titus Andronicus’, she said. ‘I can see why they exist, but if you’re that sensitive, don’t go to the theatre, because you could be very shocked. Where is the surprise of seeing and understanding it in your own way?’

Dench’s comments echo those made by Ralph Fiennes earlier this year. ‘There are very disturbing scenes in Macbeth, terrible murders and things, but I think the impact of theatre is that you should be shocked and you should be disturbed’, he told the BBC in February. ‘I don’t think you should be prepared for these things and when I was young, [we] never had trigger warnings for shows.’

Back in 2021, Shakespeare’s Globe attached a warning to a production of Romeo and Juliet over its ‘depictions of suicide, moments of violence and references to drug use’. It also warned about the production’s use of gunshot sound effects and fake blood. Contact details for the Samaritans were attached. Earlier this year, the Globe issued similar ‘content guidance’ for a production of Antony and Cleopatra, warning that it contained ‘depictions of suicide, scenes of violence and war, and misogynoir references’.

That ugly neologism, ‘misogynoir’ (misogyny against black women), hints that trigger warnings are doing something more than merely forewarning the mentally vulnerable about potentially distressing content. They reflect the woke desire to seek and detect discrimination everywhere, particularly against women and ethnic-minority people.

Although activists claim they want to shield these supposedly vulnerable groups from ‘offensive’ speech, in fact, they often take a paradoxical delight in being offended. Because the glorious thing about finding something offensive is that it casts you into the position of a victim. And there is nothing like victimhood in conferring moral superiority. Victims – real or imagined – are today seen as somehow superior for having suffered in some capacity, even if that suffering comes only from encountering ‘problematic’ words or works of fiction.

There is a similar logic at play when it comes to so-called hate crimes, which we’re often told are ubiquitous. This is why the Scottish National Party, which has mastered the art of self-pitying victim-claiming, has been so keen to criminalise hate. The purpose of Scotland’s notorious Hate Crime and Public Order Act is to generate ever more victims.

People used to talk of ‘victim culture’ back in the 1990s, but it hasn’t gone away. It grows ever stronger in our culture of hypersensitivity and competitive offence-taking.

The lure of the tribe

Some people might have been surprised last week at the sight of Greta Thunberg, decked out in a keffiyeh, at the pro-Palestine protests in Malmö, Sweden. What was this environmental campaigner now doing shouting her mouth off about the plight of the people of Gaza?

Yet this is in keeping with the nature of politics today. As most people subconsciously or instinctively know, you can guess someone’s view on one issue judging by their opinion on another. Someone who is an environmental campaigner is more likely to support Palestine, and be more sympathetic to BLM and to LGBT causes. In the opposite camp, those more sympathetic towards the plight of Israel are likely to be pro-Brexit (in the UK at least) or sceptical about trans ideology. This is not a hard-and-fast correlation, but there is a pattern.

It’s as if people don’t just sign up to one cause now, but to a whole host of seemingly unrelated positions. This may reflect a desire to belong to a tribe. Indeed, that is surely why we have the preposterous spectacle of ‘Queers for Palestine’ appearing at the weekly demonstrations over Gaza. Of course, LGBT activists have little in common with Palestinians or even some of the deeply reactionary Muslims whom they march alongside, but they do share an antipathy to Western civilisation and its past.

Such alignments aren’t unprecedented. Two decades ago, the journalist Harry Mount perspicaciously wrote that people who prefer the Beatles also usually prefer Tintin and cats, while those who like the Rolling Stones more likely prefer Asterix and dogs. I bet Greta Thunberg would belong to that second category.

The cancellation of the Anglo-Saxons

Last week, the academic journal, Anglo-Saxon England, changed its name to Early Medieval England. This was due to the ‘rapidly evolving nature of research in this field’. Or so its publisher, Cambridge University Press, claims.

I don’t buy it. Nor does historian Dominic Sandbrook, who says the move is a spineless concession to ‘mad’ American activists who believe that the term Anglo-Saxon ‘inaccurate’ and ‘racist’. Or, as one Toronto scholar argued five years ago, the term is an anachronism, and so the existence of an Anglo-Saxon people must therefore be a ‘myth’.

That’s not true. For one thing, by the 9th century, Alfred the Great claimed to rule as ‘rex Angul-Saxonum’. In any case, does it matter what the Anglo-Saxons called themselves? The Vikings never referred to themselves as such, calling themselves instead ‘Ostmen’, or ‘men from the east’. The same goes for the many autonomous tribes of Celts: ‘keltoi’ was a collective term bestowed on them all by the Ancient Greeks.

Perhaps we can’t refer to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes as a single, unified people. Really, they were a collection of tribes who migrated from what today we call the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, back in the 5th century. But we can talk of a diverse Anglo-Saxon culture and, a few centuries later, a single Anglo-Saxon realm and written language.

Rather than cancel the Anglo-Saxons for cowardly, spurious reasons, perhaps we should celebrate these immigrants to Britain and their wonderful, diverse multicultural society.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture Identity Politics


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