By Anne Southern
ARE any books safe to read, now that a trigger warning has been issued for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey?
What could possibly be upsetting about this most innocuous and entertaining of novels, written so long ago that it has little bearing on modern life? Apparently it contains ‘toxic friendship’, though is that between the two friends who talk happily away without ever listening to each other, or the stern father who ejects our heroine unceremoniously from his house when he discovers that she is not the heiress he thought her? Or does it relate to some other part of the plot so minor that I’ve forgotten it? I confess to being baffled in this instance.
But, thinking further, maybe aspects of novels not noted for their sex and violence can trigger strong reactions in those who are sensitive to a particular issue. I remember some of my A-level English literature classes, especially the one that by chance had no male students, where girls were forever rushing out in tears because they had been triggered by some aspect of Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Brontë or Gerard Manley Hopkins, be it unrequited love, the loss of a loved one or feelings of deep depression.
Would it have made a difference if I had issued trigger warnings at the start of each lesson? It certainly would have cut no ice with the examiners. As literature deals with life, it is bound to be upsetting to some.
When it comes to ‘editing’ Roald Dahl, my first thought was: ‘Ridiculous – he is of his time.’
But, as children are susceptible, does castigating characters as fat or ugly just lead to bullying? Not that changing a few relatively recent novels would make much difference. We have a whole literary heritage where goodness is associated with beauty and evil with ugliness. Perhaps we will have to restrict our children’s reading to the new kinder, more inclusive stories – though I hope that doesn’t rule out The Gruffalo.
Such sensitivity should mean that bullying in schools is waning. When I was a child, teacher-led bullying was the norm. Teachers coerced with threats of punishment. They picked on the weak, humiliating them in order to intimidate the others. I remember with horror one teacher saying that if we didn’t work hard we would end up like the Down’s syndrome boy who was left to crawl around the floor while the rest of us received some sort of education, which includes lessons about how wonderful the British Empire was. Things are, I hope, different now.
But it does seem ironic that while we are protecting our children from anything that might encourage them to pick on anyone weaker or different, and while primary schools teach kindness and understanding and a teacher can be disciplined for shouting, bullying seems to be rife in public life.
In the UK the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, is under investigation for bullying. The police force seems to have changed little since the 70s, with colleagues who are women or from ethnic minorities subject to taunts and harassment – and even worse treatment meted out to the public whose trust they should have.
And as for firefighters, pity help any woman who wants to join their ranks. While families, institutions and even the City of Manchester are considering making reparations for their role in profiting from slavery, asylum seekers are under threat in a way that will allow modern slavery to flourish. Why can’t the British government treat those fleeing from torture with some compassion?
And in our little Island, who knows what led our government’s chief executive, Suzanne Wylie, to resign so suddenly? The rumours of bullying in Broad Street are all too believable. In the States Chamber are those who think they can win a debate by snide comments and unjustified innuendo and accusations.
It is time for our leaders to set an example in eradicating bullying from the workplace. It was my aim before I left my position leading the local branch of a teachers’ union to have a bullying and harassment policy in place.
Most workplaces accept the principles. There should be no verbal abuse or insults. People should not be subject to unjustified criticism, nor criticised in front of others.
They should not exclude, marginalise or give the ‘silent treatment’, nor pick on anyone because of their race, gender, religion or disabilities. They should not have unreasonable expectations or set impossible deadlines. And, importantly, there should be no retaliation against a whistle-blower.
Young people are being taught these principles of how to treat people; they know that they can work better when they feel valued and respected, and that no one can give of their best when scared or stressed or made to feel worthless. Let’s hope that when they enter the adult world they can make it a better place, and not be swept into a very different culture.