Book Review: Trigger Warning

17 Sep 2015


At universities in the United States and the UK, those with opinions deemed offensive are banned from speaking, in the name of providing ‘safe spaces’. Language related to trauma has been appropriated by campaigners to police what topics can and cannot be raised. Instead of university being a place to explore taboos and debate in complete openness, individuals must avoid controversy. In an environment which is supposed to prepare young people for the real world; a world full of people with reactionary and offensive opinions, students are not taught to deal with attitudes they disagree with. Instead, they are taught that such opinions can merely be shut out.


The aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack witnessed another backlash against free speech. Many implicitly blamed the magazine for bringing the attack upon itself, by publishing cartoons which some found offensive. Instead of championing the right to cause offence, or even using the same standards they would apply to Christianity or an ideology like nationalism, some liberals followed the reasoning of the extremists: that Muslims need to be protected from blasphemous images. In his book, The Fallout: How a Guilty Liberal Lost his Innocence, Andrew Anthony describes comparable reactions after the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, he highlights the ‘alternative analysis’ of the event; the ‘it’s terrible, but…’ analysis in which the first three words were simply ‘the decorative part of the equation’, which preluded a condemnation of the USA. 14 years on, the reaction to the Paris attacks exhibits similarities, with Western intervention in the Middle East/Islamophobia/Israel/the cartoons all blamed.


Mike Hume describes these issues and more in his new book, Trigger Warning. Hume highlights the absurdity of outrage based on offensiveness. The controversy over Benedict Cumberbatch using the politically-incorrect word ‘coloured’ in an interview overshadowed the thoughtful point he was making about opportunities for non-whites in cinema. Brett Bailey’s “Exhibition B” aimed to shine a light on colonial and contemporary racism through featuring a ‘human zoo’ with actors. Yet it was cancelled in London after protesters claimed it was deeply offensive and perpetuated the stereotypes it purported to deconstruct. Such a work was bound to provoke strong emotions. As Bailey wrote in the Guardian: “I work in difficult and contested territory that is fraught with deep pain, anger and hatred. There are no clear paths through this territory, and it is littered with landmines.” However, it is hard to see how censoring art like this is conducive to a healthy public debate about racism.


Hume makes a clear case for all-encompassing freedom of speech, not shying away from the extremes. He defends holocaust denial, the ultimate test of this principle. He does not fall into the trap of defending one form of free speech and not others: he is critical of anti-terrorism laws enforced in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack as well as the condemnation of the cartoons. The consequences of the fear of causing offence are perilous, states Hume: society does not progress if discussions about important topics are avoided, on issues from climate change to religion to transgender rights. You cannot win a debate by preventing your opponent from speaking.


Yet, however timeless its ideals, this book is unlikely to endure in posterity. One reason for this is its fixation with minor news stories from the past few years. Sometimes the book feels like an end-of-year newsreel, such is the overload of recent events. That there has been a prevalence of news stories of this kind perhaps validates Hume’s argument that free speech is under attack; and highlights the nature of 24-hour journalism and social media, where manufactured outrage appears as abruptly as mountain fog and disappears even more quickly. However, this means that a reader of the book in ten or even five years’ time is unlikely to recall many of the stories cited.


Also, sometimes Hume overreaches and rages against ‘PC gone mad’ more generally. He may be right when he speaks of a new liberal conformism replacing an outdated conservative one; the notion that perceived threats to society are no longer swearwords and nudity but sexism and racism. Yet, if new conventions mean that people shout-back when someone says something ghastly, is that such a bad thing? Of course, the likes of Katie Hopkins and Jeremy Clarkson should have the right to be offensive, the media should have the right to employ them, and individuals should have the right to listen to them. But, liberals also have the right to exercise their freedom of speech to protest and argue against abhorrent views. Dapper Laughs may have the right to display a disgusting attitude towards women, but this does not mean others don’t have the right to protest about him being on national television.


Hume’s chapter on football recalls the days before the middle classes took over the sport. The author complains about the clamp-down on racist, homophobic, sexist and other offensive language. His argument is that, by putting stricter rules in place, governing bodies are ruining the nature of football, when “the giving and getting of abuse is an integral part of what makes watching [it] entertainment.” Yet media storms surrounding Chelsea fans shouting racist abuse in a Paris tube station, or the punishment of those who racially abuse their fellow professionals, hardly amounts to an oppressive micromanagement of the game.


Fighting repugnant ideas and defending free speech is essential for progressives. Healthy societies allow a range of ideas to interact and coexist, but have mechanisms to prevent the proliferation of prejudice and hate. The flaws of Hume’s book unfortunately prevent it from matching up to the gravity and breadth of the topic it professes to address.

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