There is a classic movie called How to Murder Your Wife in which an old wizened desk sergeant tells Jack Lemmon that he must have done something to prompt his wife’s disappearance. When Lemmon explains he said nothing, the police officer explains that while he may think he said nothing, what he said and what his wife heard were two totally different things. “Women,” he intoned, “are mistresses of the imagined slight”.
Some of you may take offence at this statement, which I think would prove my point, which is that today we’re all masters and mistresses of the imagined slight. My feeling is that we’ve all become hypersensitised to every possible slight or insult, injury or denigration. In the past one knew an insult when one encountered it, because it was blunt and personal. It was about you, not your neighbour, or your street, or your community but you, and it left you hurt and wounded and unleashed little demons that tap-danced on your mind, their steel segs digging in to gelatinous cerebral cortex, disturbing any chance of peace. Today some people go searching for offence. Like Sherlock Holmes with his magnifying glass, they are on the lookout for any statement with which they disagree, or clumsy comment on which they can pounce and claim as their own personal wound, because this in turn empowers them and allows them to feel self-righteous. We’re all in danger of becoming Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer in Annie Hall pacing the concrete canyons of Manhattan mishearing “did you” as “Jew!”.
Am I alone in thinking that our society is turning us all into lily-livered “victims”? When we were young, we were all taught the mantra “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Of course words can hurt but we seem to be going out of our way to magnify their effect. People seem to now go out into the world with their protective carapace ripped from their back exposing a quivering mound of sentient jelly, forever being pricked and wounded by a turn of phrase or an alternative opinion. Some people want us to be like Switzerland, unopinionated and neutral on all matters. Thou shall not judge. Expressing any kind of judgment is instantly seen as “slut shaming” or “fat shaming” etc. People are attempting to make these words into dangerous movements to be opposed when all they are is someone expressing an opinion with which other people disagree.
It is said that when America sneezes Britain catches a cold. Well, across the Atlantic there are two politically correct movements that may be coming our way. The first concerns re-classifying the question “Where do you come from?” as inherently and insultingly racist. The case for the prosecution is that by asking the question the interrogator has automatically decided that the subject, by the shade of their skin or shape of their eyes, does not belong “here”, wherever “here” may be, eg Texas, Montana, Florida etc. Now while I accept that, depending on tone and context, it could be viewed as such, my case for the defence is that there is no reason for anyone not to be proud of their racial or geographical origins. If you are a flame-haired Scot or an elegant Ethiopian then it’s a visible part of what constitutes you and shouldn’t be smothered by the blanket burka of just “here”.
The second trend is the growing call for “trigger warnings” (TWs) to be embraced by university literature departments. The TW first appeared in feminist blogs as an understandable cautionary note on posts that contained detailed descriptions of sexual abuse, on the grounds that those who were the victims of such crimes could stumble on passages that seriously upset them or “trigger” an episode of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The TW has now spread, with students at the University of California, Rutgers, George Washington and Michigan requesting that TWs be affixed to novels such as The Great Gatsby, Beloved, Disgrace and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which is to bear the suggested TW: “May trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence and more.”
Life has sharp edges, as anyone old enough to attend university must know, and what possible good is there to attach a linguistic pillow to the front of a novel, on the off-chance that a fraction of a percentage of future readers could argue that it harms them?
As the novelist Darin Strauss tweeted in response: “Trigger warning: All human experience.”
Life is hard and most of us don’t have our sorrows to seek, but seek them out we do. While researching this column I came across an old article by Emily Yoffee on Slate who captured my feelings in a single sentence: “Sometimes it seems we live in a culture devoted to retribution on behalf of the thin-skinned.”