No doubt many Speccie readers took heart from ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans’s recent suggestion that the business of a university should be to encourage diversity of opinion (rather, the inference being, than to gag it). And the fact that even left-leaning Australian newspapers gave the story coverage suggests that some of their readers still have at least a nostalgic attachment to the notion of free speech. But conservative observers of this particular culture war skirmish should not view it as the turning point in the broader conflict. At time of writing most of our major seats of tertiary learning – or at least their humanities faculties – continue to cleave to the conviction that Western (aka white male) civilisation is the root of all evil, and that their duty of snowflake care overrides any obligation to charter principles. I would certainly be surprised if, in the week since the story broke, my friend Bettina Arndt’s inbox has been flooded by speaking invitations from epiphanised student unions. And events in farther-flung corners of the academic world suggest that far from being the stirring of a sleeping giant, the Evans intervention might just be the twitching of a dying animal.
When I first heard about students at Manchester University voting to ban clapping to create safer spaces for people with autism or hearing impairment, I assumed they had revived the post-war undergraduate tradition of the Rag Week Prank –an impression which only strengthened when I heard that they were also prescribing ‘jazz hands’ as a less hurtful expression of audience approval. Like the international hoaxing triumvirate exposed recently by the Wall Street Journal this seemed to me to be evidence that however seriously academic institutions now take the politics of their staff, some still have a sense of humour. How wrong I was. Far from distancing themselves from a ruling which even UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has described as ‘bonkers’, the university authorities have expressed a degree of solidarity with the student body. And while it was only to be expected that the Guardian, the newspaper which the same city gave birth to, would approach the issue with its trademark editorial deadpan, I was shocked when the rest of the mainstream British media qualified its initial guffawing response by asking, presumably with one eye on their social media feeds, if the clapping ban might have some merit. That it might be, in the words of one normally conservative LBC radio presenter, ‘a step in the right direction’ – a step, that is, towards a more caring, inclusive Britain.
But one step tends to lead to another, and the path of the social justice warrior is a treacherous one. In attempting to ring-fence the emotional wellbeing of one small victim group the students of Manchester University may well incur the displeasure of a much larger and more vocal one. Speccie readers of a certain age don’t need Google to tell them that the phrase ‘jazz hands’ was coined in an era when the interests of minorities were not uppermost in politicians’ minds, and in a part of the world where the aspirations of one particular minority were openly road-blocked by universities. Al Jolson, a cultural icon of that society, was one of the few vaudeville performers to transition successfully from stage to screen, and the movie role which made him a household name was the lead in The Jazz Singer. This is the Cinderella story of a poor young Jewish cantor who becomes a star thanks to his prowess in the genre of blackface – so-called because it required a white male singer to paint his face black and parody the spirituals of an only recently emancipated slave class. Since the first time the phrase ‘jazz hands’ appeared in print was a reference to Jolson’s signature white-gloved gestures in this role, I have no doubt that at some point in the not-too-distant future, even the most casual use of the phrase by an American, British or Australian university professor – over a beer with his post-grads in the union bar, perhaps – will end his tenure as abruptly as would the leaking of an email describing proposed cuts to his department’s research budget as niggardly.
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