Trigger warnings and unintended consequences

Trigger warnings and unintended consequences

Back in the day, college was a place where students were exposed to people with a different point of view. Students were taught to think for themselves. There were debates and disagreements but people were somehow able to live with that. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote a rather long but excellent article in The Atlantic about the impact of colleges protecting their students from ideas they do not like. And the real impact on the mental health of the students.

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

Heaven forbid you read about domestic violence or racism. Just be a perpetual protected victim requiring a trigger warning. Because being a victim is so healthy right?  It seems to me that teaching someone to cope with their past is far healthier than teaching avoidance and denial.

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

Safe spaces? Fragile psyche? Students are shielded from uncomfortable ideas and words? Funny, that is what our side was accused of doing. I get it IF one is dealing with small. But life is full of microaggressions and triggers and surely learning to handle these with grace and maturity is what separates children from adults. And the results?

It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

The article goes into detail about why this is the worst thing you can do. See bad things happen before and during and after college. Being a perpetual victim and never learning to move past your pain and help others do the same is far far more harmful than seeing or hearing or reading about bad things. In addition, being a perpetual victim will be toxic in a family and workplace. So what to do?

Universities themselves should try to raise consciousness about the need to balance freedom of speech with the need to make all students feel welcome. Talking openly about such conflicting but important values is just the sort of challenging exercise that any diverse but tolerant community must learn to do. Restrictive speech codes should be abandoned.

The quote the authors used Thomas Jefferson, upon founding the University of Virginia, said:

This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.

Yes That University of Virginia who clearly forgot this quote in the interest of advancing an agenda. My suggestion is that the college give the students tools to learn to disagree and deal with people who may not think like they do.   And to the students and victims:  Grow up and stop defining yourself as a victim.


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  • Appalled By The World says:

    My head hurts now from reading this.

    Oh-did I just commit a microaggression? So sorry!

  • GWB says:

    Back in the day, college was a place where students were exposed to people with a different point of view.

    No, back in “the day” college was a place where you learned things. You didn’t go there to be “challenged” you went there to learn 1) things you didn’t know and 2) how to think so you could learn more things you didn’t know, even if they weren’t already in books.

    The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

    May be?!?

    The funny thing is the folks worried about protecting those precious snowflake psyches are the same ones who spent all their time tearing down the societal norms of politeness that actually minimized the chance that you would encounter something truly hurtful.

    I wonder if the are just crazy, or if there could be something more nefarious in it all. I’m sure I’m just being paranoid or something.

    • Appalled By The World says:

      If you ARE paranoid at least you have plenty of company. I think The Destroyers are half nuts, half evil-and ALL bad.

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