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It’s the ‘student Stasi’: Deploying ‘sensitivity readers’ to vet articles condemns Oxford’s undergraduates to intellectual poverty

It’s been reported this week that Oxford University’s student union is going to recruit ‘sensitivity readers’ to prevent the publication of ‘insensitive material’ in Cherwell, long-standing student newspaper, and other student publications. That looks awfully like censorship to me – and I’m not alone.

The Telegraph reports that, according to the Oxford Student Union council, ‘problematic articles’ have been published that are ‘implicitly racist or sexist’ or ‘just generally inaccurate and insensitive.’ To tackle the claimed problem, the union proposes to elect a ‘Student Consultancy of Sensitivity Readers’ to vet articles prior to publication. In other words, a select bunch of right-on students would decide what can and cannot be published.

It’s not as if Cherwell is a great big bucket of anti-woke wannabe Rod Liddles complaining about ‘PC gone mad.’ A quick glance at the current Cherwell homepage features news on an alternative Oxford tour for Refugee Week and a report on a symposium by Common Ground, ‘a movement that sets out to examine Oxford’s colonial past in the context of its present-day inequalities,’ alongside a news story on bicycle thefts. 

As a former editor of another Oxford student newspaper, journalist Rachel Johnson notes: “I picked up a copy of Cherwell on the train [on a recent visit] and it was mainly students talking about themselves and identity issues. Each article had a ‘trigger warning’ rating at the top for if it contains triggering words or contains triggering content. The whole thing already – before even the student sensitivity scan of each piece – felt really sad.”

A former editor of Cherwell, the former BBC and Channel 4 broadcaster Michael Crick, called the idea of using sensitivity readers “horrific,” telling the Telegraph: “The key thing about journalism is it should remain independent for people in authority, and if the students’ union don’t like it they can set up their own… The answer to all of these things is pluralism. If you’re going to have a boring, dull, vetted newspaper then nobody’s going to read it.”

Journalistic accuracy is important. ‘Getting it right’ by running something you are writing past someone else might make some sense. If you’re writing about an unfamiliar country or culture, for example, doing some research and asking people more ‘in the know’ to comment might make for a more authentic and accurate result. But the vetting process doesn’t seem to be about accuracy, but about not allowing writers to say the ‘wrong’ thing. 

Student newspapers shouldn’t be staid, sterile exercises in trying to say the ‘right’ thing. They should be about testing out arguments and developing reporting, writing and editing skills – and hopefully being entertaining and engaging along the way. The leading lights of the Oxford Student Union seem more interested in creating and reinforcing an intellectual monoculture. 

Indeed, it’s not just the students who seem to be interested in all manner of ‘diversity,’ as long as it’s not diversity of opinion. Earlier this month, for example, it was announced that 150 Oxford lecturers would refuse to teach students at Oriel College, over the college’s decision to keep a statue of Sir Cecil Rhodes. 

The reality is that the censoriousness now emanating from students is the product of older adults who have taught subsequent generations that they should not tolerate being offended and that mere words on a page can be traumatising. Ideas that contradict strongly held, mainstream views are now not merely something to disagree with, but are actually regarded as a direct assault on the reader’s or listener’s identity and mental well-being. 

Unsurprisingly, if words and ideas can trigger a personal meltdown, then the logic is that those words must be banned. Not all students are ‘snowflakes’ by any means, but there is a strong sentiment among authority figures that students have the right to censor others where they find ideas offensive. 

This is bad news for students and for society. For students, it leaves them wrapped up in intellectual cotton wool and unprepared for dealing with the harsher cut-and-thrust of debate beyond the ivory towers of university. Moreover, how can we sharpen our understanding of the world if we aren’t challenged about our ideas and open to the notion that we might be wrong? Vetting ideas and protecting students from disagreement is to leave them in intellectual poverty.

Such thinking has already permeated wider society. Sensitivity readers are becoming commonplace in publishing, for example. Novelist Lionel Shriver has described sensitivity readers as having a “gagging effect,” noting that “unrelenting anguish about hurting other people’s feelings inhibits spontaneity and constipates creativity.”

For society, this monoculture of ideas is particularly important when it exists at elite institutions like Oxford. Astonishingly, of Britain’s 16 postwar prime ministers, 12 were educated at Oxford. Only Gordon Brown, John Major, James Callaghan and, perhaps surprisingly, Winston Churchill were not. Oxford is a breeding ground for politicians and senior civil servants. If Oxford students aren’t confronted with a range of opinions to argue over in their most formative years, the future leading lights of government, the media and more will share a dangerously narrow view of the world.

Let’s hope Oxford’s students are sensible enough to look beyond campus and the thin gruel of politically correct student debate for their intellectual nourishment – and that the reign of the sensitivity reader is short lived.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

© 2021, paradox. All rights reserved.

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