“They say cut back, we say fight back!” shouted the angry horde of LSE students, some wearing face masks as though expecting trouble, as they marched down London’s Kingsway earlier today in protest of tuition fees, austerity, UKIP and the usual shopping list of lefty student grievances. These young students – women and men – were loud and purposeful; they certainly didn’t seem like the kind of people who would wilt at the first sign of disagreement or confrontation.
110 miles northwest of this rabble, however, a very different group of students was gathering in Solihull for the National Union of Students Women’s Conference 2015. And at this gathering, the delegates were deemed so sensitive and vulnerable that the simple act of clapping was discouraged for fear that it would “trigger anxiety” among them:
This isn’t the first time that clapping has caused controversy on university campuses. In February, Spiked Online published a damning report detailing growing illiberalism at British universities:
The Safe Space policy of the Edinburgh University Students’ Association requires students attending union meetings to refrain from using ‘hand gestures which denote disagreement’ and to clap only when a motion is passed, not when a motion falls. If students aren’t even allowed to clap freely, then the prospects for academic life in Britain truly are bleak.
Presumably the policy of clapping only when a motion is passed is supposed to spare the tender feelings of the (technically) young adults who backed a failed motion and somehow never learned how to deal with disappointment or personal setbacks before hitting the age of eighteen and leaving home for university. But to ban clapping outright – on the spurious grounds that it causes anxiety – goes even beyond this cotton wool treatment.
Applause-induced anxiety can only possibly afflict a vanishingly small number of people to any significant degree, though it seems there is also a much larger contingent of hypochondriacs who have been wrongly encouraged to exult in their victimhood, and to conflate a perfectly human weakness (we all have them) with a disability.
When the #jazzhandsgate furore started to trend on social media, undergraduate Aliya Yule, the Oxford (yes, Oxford) University Students Union Women’s Campaign Officer attempted to defend her call for “consensus hands” rather than clapping:
Several people on my timeline had asked that the request be repeated, as it was triggering their anxiety and was also distracting from the discussion of the motions. Anyone who has been to a conference will know that tensions are running high with some of the most vibrant student activists in the UK in one room. Conference is charged with heated debate, there is a lot to get through, say and do, and for those with generalised anxiety disorder and other disabilities, this can be a difficult and exhausting space to navigate and participate in.
Making the conference floor as inclusive and accessible as possible for people who often do not get to speak because these requests are not taken seriously is of paramount importance. Women’s Conference is a space where people who find speaking – or even appearing – in public difficult can participate in feminist discussions. To ignore or demean this inclusive ethos is to detract from the seriousness of disabilities, including mental illnesses.
No. In the real world, adults have to tackle and resolve issues far more contentious than those discussed within Student Union talking shops – and they do so where there are real-world consequences to be faced rather than the right-on acclaim that union activists can always expect to receive for taking their predictably anti-conservative, anti-Israel stances.
In the real world, adults have to grasp thorny problems and state their case without any expectation of a warm, nurturing environment in which to air their feelings. Not only do adults often find that their thoughts and ideas are rarely met with applause, they will often instead be met with hostility or outright dismissal. Whether giving an important presentation at work or participating in local democracy and activism, adults inevitably experience situations which will elicit strong emotions and forceful agreement or disagreement.
University should help to prepare students for the real world, where people think and believe different things and sometimes say so forcefully. Being appalled at the “no clapping” policy of the NUS Women’s Conference is not to “detract from the seriousness of disabilities”, it is a natural reaction of incredulity when confronted by proudly and profoundly infantilised students who are so lacking in personal confidence and so full of terror at the outside world that natural human impulses such as laughter and applause have to be suspended for their protection.
If anything, it is the ludicrous demand of the applause-o-phobes that we replace clapping with “jazz hands” which demeans real disability, not the shocked reaction of those of us who are horrified by the regression of today’s students.
If you can’t tolerate the sound of clapping you probably shouldn’t be at university, and you are certainly highly unlikely to make it in the real world, where people are occasionally known to disagree, boo, heckle and even raise their voices. It’s that simple.
And the fact that British universities are apparently riddled with coddled adolescents who break out in hives at the sound of two palms colliding does not engender a great deal of confidence in today’s young minds.
I think you are so right with this one. Can’t stand clapping? In the real world, (where people will stab you for your trainers) I think the new generations have to learn to be a little more resilient.
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Precisely. There are people out there with real disabilities, and a conference hall full of people pretending that their slight anxiety at public speaking equates to real physical or mental handicap is hyperbolic and insulting. These pampered students are going to have a very hard collision with the real world when they graduate.
Just playing with ideas here, but… “In the real world, adults have to grasp thorny problems and state their case without any expectation of a warm, nurturing environment” – is this inevitable? I mean, I strongly believe in the need for scrutiny, but the adverserial model of – well – everything has led to the depressingly disengaging politics-as-point-scoring spectacle we are drip-fed through the media each day. Perhaps if our culture as a whole could find a way of promoting a more dialectic form of debating, as opposed to the current rhetorical model, things might work a little better and there would be more understanding all round.
See, although I do tend to take it on the chin when dealing with “the real world,” I have come to realise that very little of it is inevitable or even necessary, and am therefore losing patience with it. There has to be a middle ground between consensual jazz hands, on the one hand (no pun intended!), and the kind of heckling we see in PMQs on the other – and I don’t mean the kind of passive-aggressive obtuseness and bluster one will often encounter in the workplace, either…
You’re absolutely right, things don’t need to be so adversarial, in politics or the office or culture in general. But I worry when the spinning of normal human worries like fear of public speaking are being spun into “disabilities”, because it tells the sufferer (if you can call them that) that their anxiety is an insurmountable, immovable fact of life. Rather than using university as an opportunity to move beyond their comfort zone, these students are retreating into a cocoon, and painting anyone who doesn’t accommodate their overexaggerated limitations as intolerant or insensitive.
There absolutely should be a middle ground between consensual “jazz hands” and PMQs at opposite ends of the spectrum. People should make reasonable efforts to accommodate the physical or mental limitations of others, but by overreaching and seeking to ban clapping the advocates of tolerance and sensitivity are undermining their own cause.
Thanks as always for adding some much needed nuance to my rants 🙂