On college campuses across the country, a growing number of students are demanding trigger warnings on class content. Many instructors are obliging with alerts in handouts and before presentations, even emailing notes of caution ahead of class. At Scripps College, lecturers give warnings before presenting a core curriculum class, the “Histories of the Present: Violence,” although some have questioned the value of such alerts when students are still required to attend class. Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly” contribute to learning goals and “strongly consider” developing a policy to make “triggering material” optional. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, it states, is a novel that may “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.” Warnings have been proposed even for books long considered suitable material for high-schoolers: Last month, a Rutgers University sophomore suggested that an alert for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby say, “TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.”
“Cissexism”? Honestly, I wish Putin would invade and occupy Oberlin.
What a bunch of titty babies American college students can be. Who spends $50,000 per year to send their kid to a college where they are coddled like mental invalids? These aren’t institutions of higher learning; these are sanitariums. These Special Little Snowflakes are going to be as bunnies in the gator pit when they hit the real world.
The reader who sent me this writes:
We don’t often agree on stuff, but I’m guessing you think this “trigger warning” nonsense is at least as big a crock of sh*t as I do.
Verily. If I were an undergraduate at one of these
loony bins fine colleges, I would immediately set myself to triggering as many conniptions among the delicate as I could. I was an LSU undergraduate during the John Zmirak days. The guy was an ambulatory trigger warning! It delights me to think of what he would do if he were set down among these quivering blancmanges.
UPDATE: Beyng writes, in the comboxes:
I suspect you’re going to see in this space a lot of commentary on the virtue of trigger warnings, and on the insensitivity–nay, patriarchal bigotry–of anyone who has the slightest criticism of their universal usage.
But stay strong. It’s one thing to avoid talking about sexual assault in the presence of, say, one of your friends who suffered a sexual assault. That’s just common courtesy. But I currently teach a criminal law course. In every lecture, I have no choice but to discuss some combination of murder, rape, assault, indecency, ad infinitum at length and in graphic detail. Similarly, I’m currently leading a reading group on Plato’s Symposium, which includes rather suggestive discussions (and encomiums on!) pederasty. If I had to preface each reference to “potentially offensive conduct” with a trigger warning, I would never be able to get past the first page of my lecture or of Plato’s dialogues. And even if I did include trigger warnings, so what? Does that mean anyone offended is not only permitted but encouraged to leave the classroom with no consequences for their grade? To stop their ears and sing “LA LA LA” until the offending words are spoken?
And these concerns don’t even scratch the surface of the deeper problem with requiring trigger warnings in an academic context: it exerts a chilling effect on academic discourse. This particular chilling effect is potentially much more dangerous than the one effectuated by the infamous “speech codes” of yore–at least speech codes consisted of specific lists of verboten topics and phrases. But a “trigger warning,” particularly as defined by Oberlin, could apply to virtually any subject likely to arise in an academic setting among adults. I mean, for God’s sake, what all counts as “cisgenderism”?
I think the point of all of this is to control the discourse by making the violation of the barely-veiled speech code a form of violence. It makes the professor hostage to the extremely fine sensitivities of her students. It sounds like some kind of Maoist Cultural Revolution scenario, in which the faculty have to be terrified of their earnest and militant students, lest they be turned in as counterrevolutionaries. This is how pro-gay activists are attempting to stamp out opposition in high schools: by tarring anyone who dissents as guilty of creating an “unsafe” environment for LGBTs. Note the distinction here: if an LGBT person feels unsafe, then they are unsafe, goes the thinking. It’s the same thing with the concept of a “hostile work environment.” Do hostile work environments exist? Absolutely, just as in some schools gay kids really are unsafe. The thing is, at what point does the member of the victim class get to silence dissent, however politely and calmly and respectfully expressed, simply because he or she doesn’t like to hear it?
When I was in LSU, a history professor talking about the Wars of Religion made a mild joke about Christian fanaticism, which caused a militant Christian student to stand up, denounce him, and storm out of the room. He said to the rest of us, “There’s a place across town for people like her.” He was referring to the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College. And he was right. The professor was being cheeky, but his very mild disrespect for Christians triggered anger in this student, and she bolted. I do not wonder that today, if a professor at one of these “trigger warning” colleges encountered a Christian student like that one, that he would be subject to formal discipline. After all, as a member of the oppressor class, the Christian student would have no standing. But if that professor made a joke about someone in one of the victim classes, she might well storm out of class and go straight to the Dean of Diversity, and file charges. I trust that the professor would prevail, but to have to go through the prospect of a hearing and all the rest would certainly be a deterrent to engaging in any discourse that deviated from the straight and narrow.
I’ve written in this space recently about how I once referred to Islamic terrorists as “savages,” and subsequently was accused by a member of the victim class of having created a hostile work environment by using that word. It was an utterly groundless claim, and my instinct was to fight it, and not give in. But I quickly realized that cultural politics being what they are, especially at that company, I was better off surrendering, and henceforth avoiding that person, and any topic that could tread on that person’s exquisite sensitivities. In any reasonable situation, I would have prevailed had this gone to a hearing in human resources, but these situations are not reasonable, and the fear of a lawsuit drives corporate policies. I stood to lose my job, my good name, and possibly my career (because who wants to hire someone fired for being a racist? who wants to risk opening up their organization to a lawsuit hiring someone like that?), all because of this nonsense accusation by someone with extremely thin skin.
UPDATE.2: On the other side, this letter just came in:
I’m writing regarding what you published on “trigger warnings” earlier this morning. I agree wholeheartedly that what oversensitive people have done with the concept of the “trigger warning” is utterly ridiculous, but I would carve out a space for it in public discourse.
All I can tell is my story, which is limited and incomplete and only indirectly reaches the truth of the matter. My wife was raped relatively recently, and it’s hard for me to consume rape-related media without getting totally enraged at her attacker all over again. I’m talking whenever I see a first-hand account of somebody’s sexual assault or attack, or the Bates/Anna thing on Downton Abbey, or anything like that, I’m struggling not to fly straight back into that buy-a-gun-and-fly-to-<redacted> mode I’ve only partially weaned myself away from. Critically, I’m not even a survivor of rape, for whom these types of concerns are infinitely more important to take into consideration. For actual survivors, reading the wrong article or seeing the wrong movie like this can act as a trigger for PTSD or other flashback-type issues, which I can tell you (only second-hand) are terribly unpleasant.
I don’t mean to de-value the experiences of rape survivors by only talking about how inconvenient it is for me to be married to a survivor, but it’s also really difficult to speak on my wife’s behalf. Here’s a story, in case you’re not familiar with these kinds of things: we got married in town we went to college, since that’s where we’d met. Her attacker’s an alum, and the day after our wedding – you know, happiest day of our lives and all – we run into this guy in the CVS for the briefest of moments.
That’s all it takes for my wife to experience flashbacks, nightmares, and other PTSD symptoms.
Recently, her best friend from college got engaged. A wonderful day. The next day, my wife was crying, and crippled by anxiety, and was having flashbacks, only because she’d remembered that one year her attacker had been roommates with her friend’s fiance.
It’s hard for people who are outside of experiences like these to understand just how easy it is to un-do months of therapy. We have plenty of friends who’ve had similar experiences who’ll tell you the same things. (It’s astonishing how many people come out of the woodwork when you display even the slightest inclination to talk about sexual assault and rape from a place of compassion and understanding. The statistical reported rates of incidence – one in five women – don’t really do justice to the reality.)
So, yes, I think there’s a space for something like “trigger warnings”, when the material could legitimately induce severe psychological trauma in the reader, and when you can reasonably guess that there are many readers for whom this trauma might exist.
On a personal level, devotion to Our Lady is a tremendous help through all of this, and I highly recommend it to those in these situations whose theologies allow it.
I’m so sorry about this, reader. And yes, I agree that trigger warnings are valid under certain conditions. How do we allow for trigger warnings for people who have been actual victims, as your wife has, and not allow discourse to be controlled by people who were not traumatized, as your wife was, but who simply have anxiety when confronting certain material? Do you have any thoughts?
UPDATE.3: A college professor writes in the comments thread:
I think this is the most important line from your second letter: “(It’s astonishing how many people come out of the woodwork when you display even the slightest inclination to talk about sexual assault and rape from a place of compassion and understanding. The statistical reported rates of incidence – one in five women – don’t really do justice to the reality.)” I just left a class where we talked about murder and rape; in other classes we’ve talked about sexual molestation, alcoholism, racism, etc. (the current topic is the question of evil). But it is in the approaching of the topics from the position of compassion, rather than avoidance, that allows for us to deal with them in a way that may not cause harm, but healing. As a consequence of our in class discussions, one of my students turned in a paper last week where she described being molested by her father from 8-13. I don’t think she has ever talked about it with anyone (she’s from a culture that calls for honoring one’s parents). But she was only able to write about it because she knew I’d be compassionate about it.
The problem with most higher education is that it is about what you know, rather than what you know to love. But if approached from a position of love, I’ve found that my students can talk about just about everything. And precisely because love opens up a space for understanding, the students can observe the issue in a way that allows them to both distance themselves from it and then integrate it into their own personal narrative. But students are smart, they can usually detect the difference between someone doing this is a political move and one that comes from a position of care that will allow them to apply intellectual tools to their experiences. This isn’t coddling them, but is rather giving them an opportunity to make sense of their own experiences using the intellectual tools that we have developed over time.