This article was first published in ‘9 West Road‘
Back in 2017 it was reported that some lectures that I’d given for the Tragedy paper had been advertised to students with warnings about the material to be discussed. A lot of commentators professed themselves to be highly irked. Goaded on by such headlines as ‘Cambridge students warned Shakespeare plays may distress them’, ‘Cambridge University slammed over Shakespeare ‘trigger warnings’’, and ‘FAMOUS PLAYS COME WITH TRIGGER WARNINGS AT CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY’, several opinion columnists harrumphed about how easily the youth of the day got upset. In his column for the Observer, the actor and comedian David Mitchell tut-tutted that ‘students nowadays […] want to be able to curate their experience of the world to exclude elements they’d rather didn’t exist’. Shakespeare himself declined to comment on the whole affair, but being told off by the man who played him in the BBC sitcom Upstart Crow seemed to demand that I think more about what I was doing with the Great Man’s work.
That the stories were more complicated than the headlines suggested is, perhaps, a given — the lectures about ’sex and violence in Shakespeare and Greek tragedy’ were, to be pernickety about it, discussions of sexual violence: in relation to Shakespeare, yes, to Greek tragedy, yes, but also as encountered in Sarah Kane’s concertedly distressing plays, and in real-life accounts of rape. Angry comment-thread avatars alleged often that the warnings were a form of censorship, despite the fact that I had gone so far as to write a lecture series, and deliver it, on this subject matter. At the time it seemed to me that these warnings were the opposite of censorship: for students unaffected by these issues, the warnings were easily ignored; for any students who were, perhaps, dealing with the trauma of (say) sexual violence, the warnings would (hopefully) help them better prepare for, and thus better participate in, these discussions.
I read through these comment-threads for some weeks, mostly muttering darkly to myself about how I was being described by the username community (‘‘woolly minded’, am I? ‘Stupid’, is it? ‘Overpaid’, say you?’). These weeks of reading online comments — though at first a straightforwardly obsessive and narcissistic exercise — led me to note a series of dramas playing out which closely resembled the scenarios I’d first examined in the course of the offending lecture series, which I’d titled, grandly, ‘The Limits of Slapstick’. Now, in online comment threads, I saw similar descriptive techniques to those I’d shown in Shakespeare, Sophocles and Kane: the comments from the likes of ‘sayitlikeitis’, ‘Veritas1701’, ‘TrustNobody’ (and the rest) generalised and stereotyped frequently, but — more specifically — many sought to transform the bodies of the students they imagined into ridiculous, slapstick entities. Publications which were more obviously composed than these comments — columns in the Spectator or on Breitbart, popular academic books with titles like The Coddling of the American Mind — often performed the same perceptual sleight of hand: arguing against any use for ‘trigger warnings’ by presenting the hypothesised traumatised individual as humanoid rather than human, an alien figure whose actions were arbitrary and meaningless, not only undeserving of our sympathy but incapable of it.
When David Mitchell first grumbled about the warnings appended to my lectures, he believed that undergraduates were ‘being protected from the knowledge of, among other things, what one of Shakespeare’s plays is about, in case it upsets them’. The troubling aspect of my lectures was not really to do with what Shakespeare’s plays were about: the issue was what the plays did, and how I’d be discussing that. When a writer takes a traumatised figure and turns it into a slapstick entity, the writer denies that figure dignity — this constitutes, in itself, I suppose, an attack on that figure, trivialising the trauma that has afflicted it. But it also serves to alienate the traumatised figure from the community of onlookers: this, the writer says, is a body that behaves differently to ours. Scrutinising that figure serves to abstract it further, dislocating it from the proclaimed common experience.
In the end, the governing irony of much commentary on the lectures’ warnings was to be found in the definition and defence of ‘the real world’. Comment after comment wondered what ‘upset’, ‘distressed’, ‘snowflake’ students would do when they left the lecture hall for the ‘real world’. Such arguments insisted, by implication, that rape and post-traumatic stress disorder were not part of that real world. The world sketched out in these commentaries could not, in fact, accommodate anybody whose behaviour might claim the contrary: to maintain such a world, behaviours that might be evidence of traumatic episodes and post-traumatic response were easiest dismissed as bogus, or described as baffling, alien, and comical. One feels that David Mitchell spoke for many when he lamented that ‘students nowadays […] want to be able to curate their experience of the world’ — but it can just as well be countered that it’s such statements as his which seek to curate the world, insisting on the unreality of the traumatised individual’s experience, and excluding the newly ludicrous figure from the ‘real world’ that he, and commentators like him, would prefer to occupy.