I am, as usual, late getting to the latest controversy in academe, which has been argued to death before I even became aware of it. Inside Higher Ed appears to have gotten there first, followed by editorials at The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. At issue are trigger warnings, a neologism for what might otherwise be called parental advisories (thinking in loco parentis here), to be placed in syllabi and on classroom materials, at first fiction reading but potentially history lessons (and frankly, just about anything else), that might trigger a panic attack or some other dolorous response from a student with a phobia or memory of a traumatic experience. The opinion articles linked above (Inside Higher Ed is more purely reporting) are all in agreement that triggers warnings are a bad idea.
Although articles in news organs are more nearly broadcasting and thus lack discussion (unless one ventures into the swamp of the comments section, which I rarely do), I indulged in a long discussion of the subject with fellow alumni of one of the institutions named in the reports. As with other issues, it developed so many facets that a snapshot determination became impossible if one attempted to accommodate or address all perspectives. Therein lies the problem: accommodation. Left-leaning liberals are especially prone to hypersensitivity to identity politics, which gained prominence in the late 1970s or early 80s. I quickly run afoul of anyone who takes such a perspective because I am notoriously white, male, well-educated, and middle class, so I must constantly “check my privilege.” When someone like me refuses others accommodation, it looks to others like raising the ladder behind me after I’ve safely ascended. I can appreciate, I think, how frustrating it must be to have one’s earnestness thwarted, but yet, I admit I just don’t get it. At the risk of offending (trigger warning here), let me blunder ahead anyway.
The world (or as I’m beginning to call it more simply, reality) is a messy place, and each of us inevitably carries some phobia, trauma, or history that is unsavory. From one celebrated perspective, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger; from another, we are trained to request accommodation. Accommodation used to be primarily for physical disabilities; now it’s for feelings, which some argue are just as debilitating. This is the province of every self-selected minority and special interest group, which has spawned predictable backlashes among various majority groups (e.g., the men’s movement, resurgent white supremacy). Naturally, any lobby, whether part of a minority or majority, will seek to promote its agenda, but I regard the brew-ha-ha over trigger warnings as an example of growing incidence of what’s been called the Strawberry Generation. It’s remarkable that students now regard themselves as dainty flowers in need of special protection lest they be trampled by, well, reality. So trigger warnings are being requested by students, not on their behalves. With so many examples throughout even recent history of flagrant social injustice and oppression, it’s clear that everyone wants to proclaim their special combination of disadvantages and receive accommodation, all the better if multiplied by inclusion in several protected classes. It’s a claim of victimhood before the fact or perhaps permanent victimhood if one is a survivor of some nastiness. (Disclaimer: real oppression and victimhood do exist, which I don’t intend to minimize, but they’re not because of reading fiction or learning history, scandalous as they may be).
In addition, what exactly is accomplished by virtue of warnings that one is about to encounter — what should it be called — messy material? Does one steel oneself against impact and thus limit its educational value, or does one expect to be excused from facing reality and receive an alternative assignment minus the offending material? Both are the antithesis of higher education. Arguments in the abstract are easy to ignore, so here are two specific examples: substitution or elimination of the words nigger and injun in modernized editions of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and biology textbooks that give consideration to (literally) unscientific accounts of creation and evolution. If one’s racial or religious background gives rise to excess discomfort over the use of one or another egregious trigger word (nigger in particular now having been reclaimed and repurposed for all sorts of uses but with caveats) borne out of ripe historical context or what science (as opposed to religion) teaches, well, that’s the world (reality) we live in. Sanitizing education to avoid discomfort (or worse) does no one any favors. Discomfort and earnest questioning are inevitable if one is to learn anything worthwhile in the course of getting an education.