An author of spoofy, light-hearted mysteries, my friend Ruth Dudley Edwards has had unusual difficulty completing her new novel, Death of a Snowflake. The trouble isn’t lack of material —she’s spoilt for choice — but real life outpacing satire. As we now live in a world of ‘you could not make this stuff up’, readers looking for a laugh are spurning fiction in droves in preference for the newspaper.
To wit, exam administrators rather than students are now tested. Stirring widespread consternation this month, a GCSE English exam cited a passage from H.E. Bates’s short story ‘The Mill’, which in due course —not in the passage itself — portrays a rape. Students have protested that the excerpt should have carried a ‘trigger warning’.
If women being abused somewhere in the story puts contemporary young people into a tailspin, that would knock out excerpting any of Thomas Hardy, if not most of Shakespeare. More, this logic of toxic proximity has veritably infinite application, and could preclude test-taking altogether. What if in the school library the excerpted book sits right next to another book in which a rape takes place? Perhaps round the corner from the building in which the exam is given — or at least in the same catchment area — a woman was once raped. Maybe the teacher handing out the exam papers knows someone who was raped. Or knows someone who knows someone. Why, theory would have it that we are all a maximum of six degrees of separation from a rape victim. Thus simply waking up in the morning must plunge the delicate into a vertiginous swoon sufficiently incapacitating to send them back to bed. Given that any exam is administered in a universe in which rape occurs, tests are all traumatising reminders of sexual assault.
You’d think that a maths GCSE would be dry enough to escape demands for a trigger warning, but no. The following word problem set off a 7.4 magnitude earthquake on Twitter: ‘There are 84 calories in 100g of banana. There are 87 calories in 100g of yogurt. Priti has 60g of banana and 150g of yogurt for breakfast. Work out the total number of calories in this breakfast.’
I could see being passingly dismayed that after eating only 180.9 calories at breakfast Priti must still be hungry. Instead, one student twitted: ‘I am sorry, but can I ask what on earth you were thinking by having a question around counting calories? Your exams are primarily taken by 15- to 20-year-olds, who are also the age group most likely to suffer from eating disorders.’ A 16-year-old objected: ‘The weighting food and calorie question on the paper today triggered me so much… It just brought back so many bad memories for me that I was about to cry.’ A former anorexic considering making a formal complaint claimed that the word problem ‘brought back so many memories of counting calories, it put me into a panic where I had to leave the room for about five minutes and a teaching assistant calmed me down… It definitely triggered memories of counting everything.’
Presumably, then, these students are not robust enough to enter the average restaurant, where calorie counts glare menacingly from menus, forcing the youngsters to flee the premises or reducing them to tears. Given the many fattening nemeses in a recovering anorexic’s past, perhaps one could simply shout ‘Layer cake!’ to cattle-prod these people into paralysing flashbacks. In that all food has calories, and a specific number of calories at that, we have to wonder how any of these folks manage to navigate a trigger-happy environment of supermarkets, burger-chain adverts, and more than one pedestrian walking around with a sandwich.
It’s already trite to deride young people for their fragility, which may be one reason Ruth has had trouble finishing her novel (now, she says, enlivened by ‘an idea so gross it might just be ahead of campus reality’). So I’ll submit a fresher proposition. This disproportionate sensitivity is learned behaviour. One of the primary reasons students are triggered is our coinage of that expression. The usage of triggered to mean ‘sent into the kind of psychotic PTSD suffered by soldiers in Iraq who saw their best friends dismembered at point blank range by IEDs, usually because of tiny, obscure, oblique, and/or overtly unthreatening stimuli’ is relatively recent, and the term itself brings the response into being. The act of naming has mighty powers. Once we had trigger warnings on novels in which something actually happens, through the miracle of linguistic spontaneous generation we manifested students being triggered. If we didn’t have the expression, I wager that we wouldn’t have the outsize reaction it describes, either. Even the derogatory term ‘snowflake’ helps perpetuate the very frailty it denotes. It’s amazing how biddably people adhere to their own stereotypes, especially when snappily encapsulated by a viral metaphor.
To further demonstrate the surreal sway of designation, I offer the direr example of ‘self-harm’, which also entered common parlance only in the past decade or two. This is mere speculation, but hardly incredible: a driving reason that the prevalence of ‘self-harm’ has soared is our incessant usage of that expression (now applied to everything from tax cuts to Brexit). The bewildering custom of purposefully mutilating one’s own body has a name, which allows us to discuss it ad nauseum, and so also to promote the sickening habit in the very process of decrying it. By naming the perverse practice, we gave it life — because for such a contagion to spread even on social media you have to call it something first. Maybe the moral of this story is be careful what you christen.
Just in case the semantic enticement to overreaction of triggering and the incentivising prospect of evading exams weren’t enough to magic all our kids into gibbering train wrecks: diagnoses of ‘anxiety’ will now merit the award of blue badges for disabled parking. After all, these days spaces reserved for the well-adjusted would remain eternally available.
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