Exactly three years ago, I wrote in a newspaper that extreme sensitivity towards students was threatening the integrity and freedom of academic life across the Anglo-American world.
My article was prompted by the growing fashion for universities to introduce so-called ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ in a misguided effort to protect students from any challenging material or experiences.
One prime example was the decision by University College, London telling those on its ‘archaeology of modern conflict’ course that they would be allowed to leave class if they found the discussion of historical events ‘disturbing’ or ‘traumatising’.
I expressed the concern that such policies, far from reassuring students, were helping to fuel a mood of institutionalised anxiety.
Oxford University Students Union is to replace clapping with ‘jazz hands’, where participants signal approval by silently waving both hands at the sides of their bodies, palms facing outwards (stock image)
Censorship, meanwhile, was eroding the scope for study.
At the time, I was told I was exaggerating the phenomenon. It was said trigger warnings were just a passing fad, there was nothing to worry about.
But this complacency was misplaced. The habit of treating students as fragile ‘snowflakes’ has accelerated, reaching into every part of the university sector.
A new nadir was reached last week with reports that Oxford University Students Union is to replace clapping with ‘jazz hands’, where participants signal approval by silently waving both hands at the sides of their bodies, palms facing outwards.
The purported justification for this is to avoid offending those who are upset by loud noise.
In the words of the student union’s welfare and equal opportunities officer: ‘The policy was proposed to encourage the use of British Sign Language clapping to make events more accessible and inclusive for all, including people who suffer from anxiety.’
Oxford is not the first students’ union to indulge in this kind of grotesque gesture politics. A ban on clapping was imposed by the National Union of Students at its conference in 2017, while last year Manchester University’s union adopted the same approach at its meetings.
But it is a tragedy that Oxford, one of the most revered academic institutions in the world, should have succumbed to this dangerous nonsense.
Some might dismiss ‘jazz hands’ as nothing more than the kind of frivolous, attention-seeking behaviour to which student unions have always resorted.
But the situation is far worse.
The Oxford policy is important because it symbolises our culture’s slide into infantalised decadence, where enfeeblement is celebrated and learned helplessness indulged.
In the current climate of invented grievance, victimhood — no matter how spurious — is a passport to special status on campus.
Students are encouraged to cultivate their vulnerabilities, rather than emphasise their strengths.
By promoting the belief their students cannot cope, universities are robbing undergraduates of their resilience and leaving them ill-prepared for the real world. There is much talk today about mental health, but our campuses are creating emotional minefields with their relentless focus on the potential for distress — even at the sound of clapping hands.
In the words of the student union’s welfare and equal opportunities officer: ‘The policy was proposed to encourage the use of British Sign Language clapping to make events more accessible and inclusive for all, including people who suffer from anxiety’ (stock image)
One study in 2015 by the National Union of Students claimed 80 per cent of students had had ‘mental health issues in the previous year’. At exam time in my own university in Kent, there are always long queues to see the team of counsellors, something that did not happen when mental health was less of an obsession.
The ‘jazz hands’ policy is absurd on several other levels.
The tremendous irony, in all this worship of political correctness, is that the origins of ‘jazz hands’ could hardly be less progressive.
The name comes from the 1927 Hollywood movie The Jazz Singer — the first major film with sound — in which renowned white actor Al Jolson appeared ‘blacked-up’ and waving his hands in the manner now approved by Oxford Students Union. The same mix of blackface and jazz hands was later used in the BBC’s The Black And White Minstrel Show, which is today notorious for its racism.
Outside a student union, who could possibly claim any genuine offence at clapping?
Applauding in gratitude, approval or celebration is a basic human instinct that should be cherished rather than banned.
It has been echoed everywhere, from Ancient Rome to the Islamic world. As academics Gary Lupyan and Ilya Rifkin put it: ‘Applause seems to be a remarkably stable facet of human culture’ and ‘has been in existence for millennia’.
It is also an impulse found in people at any age.
One key milestone in the development of babies is their ability to clap their hands.
‘Jazz hands’ are dressed up in the language of tolerance, but it is the refusal to allow applause that is far more likely to cause offence.
Performers — including sports stars, actors, musicians and politicians — rely on the response of their audiences to be at the best.
They are hardly likely to draw inspiration from the damp squib of a show of waggling hands. Indeed, if the Oxford decision were copied in other arenas, much of the theatrical excitement of events would disappear.
What football fans would want to fork out for live games if they were banned from clapping? Theatres would lie empty, the BBC Question Time studio would resemble a morgue.
In truth, there is nothing compassionate about jazz hands.
On the contrary, it is a denial of humanity. The university sector’s willingness to collude with this clapping ban illustrates how far liberties have been eroded in the name of respecting the vulnerable.
An increasingly authoritarian spirit now prevails on campuses.
As the progressive orthodoxy is ruthlessly enforced in an Orwellian manner, debate is suppressed, controversial opinions are left unheard, freedom of speech is eroded and maverick speakers no-platformed.
It is a tragedy that Oxford, one of the most revered academic institutions in the world, should have succumbed to this dangerous nonsense, writes FRANK FUREDI (stock image of Oxford University)
Universities should be arenas for lively discussion. Instead they are becoming citadels of conformity.
Last month, in another triumph for dogma, Cambridge University announced it has removed red meat from its cafes and canteens to reduce its ‘carbon footprint’.
Despite Oxford’s blather about social inclusion, jazz hands carry the danger of marginalising the visually impaired, who may welcome loud applause so they can gauge the mood at certain meetings.
For them, silence could be oppressive. But such contradictions are inherent in the tyranny of political correctness.
A victory for the transgender lobby over self-identification can also be seen, from another angle, as a threat to women’s rights and autonomy.
Similarly, respect for religious faith can sometimes descend into theocratic censorship.
The logic of the jazz-hands culture is that almost any activity could potentially be excluded because it might give offence to someone, somewhere.
Anyone who values the traditional liberties of our civilisation should take a stand against this nonsense. Jazz hands deserve derision, not applause.
- Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology and author of How Fear Works, published by Bloomsbury Press.