The idea that young people are exceptionally coddled and go to great lengths to protect themselves against the realities of life – to the detriment of the rest of us – has long settled in the brains of the nation, where, in some cases, it seems to have hardened into an immovable plaque.
I was struck by an interview with ex-Python Terry Gilliam. After years of irreverent truth-telling (recent views: #MeToo was a witch-hunt, Harvey Weinstein’s victims were “adults who made choices”, he himself was a black lesbian), Gilliam had suddenly encountered a censorious new generation, the first of its kind, which was simply too soft and closed-minded to take it. They could not handle his truth.
“At universities, when a lecturer comes in the ideas are so disturbing that the students have to go into a safe room, where they can hold hands and recover from these ideas,” he said.
You will have heard this before: Gilliam follows in the footsteps of John Cleese and many other comedians and writers (last week, it was the turn of novelist Anthony Horowitz to bemoan the issue in an interview). A Telegraph editorial complains about a trigger warning on a French course as evidence students are overprotected. It is worth challenging because several mistakes are being made at once.
First: the inherent contradiction. Can a generation simultaneously be fatally unprepared for the real world and so powerful that it can shape that world entirely in its image? Is it not in fact people such as Gilliam who are ill prepared for the realities of today’s world?
Debates of the kind Gilliam may first have encountered at university have been raging around them all their lives
There is also a misunderstanding about just how coddled young people are. Growing up on the internet, and in a country where the groups of politicians winning elections have very different views from the typical “liberal student”, the young may never have been more exposed to alternative thinking. Debates of the kind Gilliam may first have encountered at university have been raging around them all their lives. They are also far more accustomed to what you might call “upsetting content” than would be contained in any university course. Extreme porn, racist diatribes, sexist trolling – these will all be deeply familiar to those currently at university. Little wonder if the concept of “drawing the line somewhere” interests this generation more than previous ones.
It is of course deeply alarming that books have been taken off reading lists because they might be offensive, two cases of which were found in a Times investigation last week. But trigger warnings are not censorship; in fact, they may help broaden the audience for certain texts. Those with unpleasant personal experience – rape, racism, homophobia – will have always struggled to treat debates on these topics with the kind of dispassionate intellectual rigour university courses require. It’s a good thing if lecturers and tutors are now being made aware of this obstacle. That should help learning, not hinder it.
We should also note that our times are not uniquely censorious. There has never been a point in history when comedians such as Gilliam could simply say anything they liked. Society has always had its taboos and they have always been enforced. Even when Gilliam was at the height of his powers, he would have been cast out for blacking up, for example, or Holocaust denial. (“You can’t say anything these days,” you can imagine a disgruntled performer saying as The Black and White Minstrel Show was ushered off the BBC, just four years after the final series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.) Gilliam is yearning for a time that never existed.
True, certain types of taboo seem to be accumulating in the west. In progressive societies, ridiculing certain oppressed groups tends to become increasingly taboo as these groups acquire status, civil rights and respect. Racism, homophobia, sexism and ableism are all going out of fashion. (These kinds of changes have always tended to be driven by young liberal groups. Gilliam should note that students have always been more censorious than the rest when it comes to offending minorities.)
But other species of taboo are loosening, the sort once enforced by dominant groups and orthodoxies in society (and the kind that proliferate under repressive regimes). Jokes about Christianity, the monarchy and sex, including women joking about their body parts and bodily functions – these have become less and less taboo. As has swearing.
Was Weinstein a monster? Should black lesbians be ridiculed by Gilliam? In Britain, these debates have kicked the bucket
Frank Skinner recently recalled a gig in the 80s where the host apologised to the crowd after Skinner performed some risque material on sex, before himself launching into a series of racist jokes that brought the house down. This kind of change has also always tended to be pushed by the young. It’s possible that the number of taboos in circulation at any time is in fact net neutral, even as their subjects change. Gilliam and colleagues should consider the sensation they are experiencing is not being cancelled but merely going out of fashion.
Should taboos exist at all? It is clear that they hugely damage free speech and work to hinder debates on which society has not yet made up its mind. Progressive societies should resist them where possible. But there is a place for them nonetheless. There are points in history when certain questions and subjects become taboo not because something interesting lurks within, or because people are afraid of them, but because a debate is flatly over. One side has won.
Is racism OK? Did the Holocaust happen? Was Weinstein a monster? Should black lesbians be ridiculed by Gilliam? In Britain, these debates have kicked the bucket. They have shuffled off their mortal coil and joined the choir invisible. They are ex-debates. Tediously reviving them is actually harmful to free speech (as well as offensive) because it suggests public debate can never make progress. All questions are open, forever.
• Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent