Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Trigger happy

When does sensitivity to others become over-sensitivity and censorship? The question that springs to mind after a professor of literature allegedly dropped a well-known book from her curriculum and issued a trigger warning on her other course books.

Supposedly, after consulting with students, Professor Judith Hawley removed Fanny Hill from the reading list on the grounds that it contains "pornographic material" and may "cause offence". Supposedly again, her trigger warning explained that certain texts "sometimes reflect the unpleasant prejudices of their time" (However, Professor Hawley says she never banned the book, and never issued a trigger warning, so what actually happened is unclear)

But it's an important issue. Should a lecturer have to be so defensive simply because some students might be offended by words in a book? Surely the whole point of a literature course is to appraise an entire book, with all its negative and positive points, and not to pre-judge it by banning it or issuing warnings about its content?

Many books contain "pornographic material". Many books might "cause offence" or include "unpleasant prejudices". If all books were banned or given trigger warnings for those reasons, there wouldn't be many books left that were safe to read. Literature courses would be reduced to studying children's books or romantic fiction.

Why are books being considered on the basis of whether they offend people or not, rather than their literary or cultural or creative merits? Why are complex works of art being seen only as emotional triggers?

And if students are so over-sensitive to course material they need protecting from it, maybe they should be taking a less stressful course? Maybe accountancy or bricklaying?

Personally, I would say a book that isn't disturbing is hardly worth reading. I like my cosy preconceptions to be rudely jolted.

PS: Professor Hawley has denied banning Fanny Hill, saying it was never on her reading list in the first place (The Guardian) Unfortunately at least nine media outlets have repeated the "censorship" story so most people will continue to believe Fanny Hill was censored. The Telegraph hasn't published any further story or correction. I sent them an official complaint, asking them to publish a correction or provide the sources for their story. They replied that their story was an accurate account of what Professor Hawley had said, and was not in any way incorrect. Professor Hawley has thanked me for my interest in the issue, but she makes no further comment one way or the other.

Pic: Professor Hawley

Friday, 11 August 2017

Hopeless dates

A woman from Philadelphia is suing a dating agency on the grounds that the men they offered her weren't properly screened, and were incompat-ible and unsuitable.

Darlene Daggett, a retired businesswoman, paid £115,000 to sign up with the supposedly elite dating agency, which promised ideal matches from around the globe.

One took her to Panama and then jetted off with his ex-partner the day after they returned. Another, nicknamed the "Serial Lothario", spent Christmas and Thanksgiving with her, and then abruptly left her. A third said he was waiting for his terminally ill wife to die. Yet another was a compulsive liar and stalker.

The dating agency has denied any wrongdoing, saying thousands of its clients have got married, but "it doesn't always work out".

I have no experience of dating agencies, having grown up at a time when people still relied on fortuitously meeting their future partner at the pub or the office or someone's party. We regarded dating agencies as strictly for the desperate and socially inept who just weren't getting anywhere.

Nowadays dating agencies are commonplace and nobody thinks twice about using them. But the results can be pretty hit and miss, and it's normal to get a few weirdos and arseholes along with the more appealing contenders.

So I think Darlene Daggett is being a bit absurd accusing the dating agency of offering her unsuitable men. Such is the occupational hazard of dating. Has any woman been spared the usual ration of slimeballs?

Presumably the dating agency's defence will be that however diligently they check a person out, there's always something they're hiding - maybe something pretty unsavoury. That's the risk you take going out with a total stranger.

And the agency can't be responsible for people's sordid secrets.

Pic: Darlene Daggett (right) and actress Cynthia Garrett

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Holiday fever

So tourism is out of control in many towns and cities. Then what's the answer? Journalist Simon Jenkins suggests we all stop taking holidays and stay at home. Why do we insist on all this travelling around, he asks, especially when travelling is getting so stressful - jammed roads, overcrowded trains, clogged airports.

Well, he might not want a holiday (though I suspect he sneaks off to other countries when nobody's looking), but most of us love our holidays. There's no way we'll sit at home for 52 weeks a year admiring the wheelie bins. We can't wait to set off somewhere new. And as soon as we've had one holiday, we're planning the next.

But he set me thinking - why do I love holidays so much? Why do I love exploring other countries, despite all the frustrations - flight delays, pricey hotels, unreliable weather, surly cabbies, inpenetrable languages, endless siestas. What makes it all worth it?

For a start, I like to go somewhere with a different culture, different customs, a different way of looking at things. It shakes me up a bit. It's easy to get insular and narrow-minded when you're living in the same predictable spot year in and year out.

I like seeing at first hand what a place is really like, when I've only known it as a name on a map, a photo, a media headline, the setting for someone's anecdote, or where some celeb grew up. Because the reality is often quite at odds with the mental image created from all these bits and pieces.

I want to see places that are visually stunning - Sydney Harbour, Venice, Vancouver, New York. Places with extraordinary architecture and buildings, where it's exciting just to walk down a side street and find beautiful, idiosyncratic houses. And places with breathtaking landscapes, like the Swiss Alps, the Rockies or the Scottish Highlands.

Not go on holiday? You must be joking.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Let it rip

If there's one major cause of so many problems in the world it's all those people who enjoy violence. While most of us shudder at the thought of violence and do our best to avoid it, there are plenty of people who not only see it as a normal part of life but positively enjoy it.

Needless to say, it's mainly men who find violence so attractive, though women can be drawn to it as well. For those men obsessed with being masculine, violence is the classic way to show your manliness and show how tough and ruthless you can be. Being kind and gentle is strictly for wimps.

So the world is plagued by wars, gangland murders, sexual aggression, terrorist attacks, honour killings, internet abuse and all those other things rooted in the sick thrill of violence. Of course there's always some bogus excuse for it - it's necessary to teach someone a lesson, satisfy your sexual needs, gain political control, or defend your territory.

They'll never admit it, but often it's all down to the sheer enjoyment of violence. The sheer pleasure of terrifying someone, beating them up or finishing them off. The euphoric sense of just letting rip, breaking all the rules.

Who knows what causes someone to relish violence rather than recoiling from it? Is it genetic, is it childhood conditioning, is it a mental disorder, is it a response to the way others have treated you? It's hard to say. I suspect it usually stems from a miserable childhood devoid of parental love and affection. The resulting anger and bitterness all too easily turns to violence.

But whatever the cause, it's sickening to read daily horror stories of people who laugh and gloat as they inflict appalling violence. Even when they're taken to court, they show no remorse but act lackadaisical about what they did.

I can't begin to imagine what's going on in their minds.

Pic: A protest against the molestation of a Tanzanian girl in Bangalore, India in February 2016