Thankfully, the trigger warning idea is getting some strong pushback. The faculty at American University has strongly endorsed free speech on campus. Other prestige colleges, like Purdue, are following the lead of the University of Chicago in taking a firm stand. And, of course, President Obama has actually taken a side in the fight, and the correct one, too.
The game is far from over, of course. It remains to be seen whether the aggressive push for speech restraint is a temporary thing involving a short-blooming species of hothouse flower or whether there is more going on relative to generational differences, with a more restrictive sense of public space and propriety taking root. More on that below.
Meanwhile the kids–some of them anyway–continue the kids’ crusade. The latest putschback to the pushback involves a demand to shut down The Argus, Wesleyan College’s student newspaper, on the grounds that in not being sufficiently respectful to the Black Lives Matter Movement people are made to feel unsafe. So the paper should be deprived onna counta it’s depraved. Thankfully, the President, Provost and Vice-President for Equity and Inclusion sent a better than OK letter to the campus community that included this passage:
Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.
The commenters, many of them undergrads, appear not to get it. One wrote:
. . . but how much do we need to tolerate before it starts to offend other people?
To which another commenter wrote back:
All of it. You need to tolerate all of the speech, even when it starts to offend other people.
Opinions seem to divide generally on the basis of age. But it’s not always just about a different set of values held by the rising generation. Some older faculty support defunding The Argus. And in Australia, the administration of Melbourne University’s Ormond College has banned porn on campus, with the college’s “master” (love that title!) writing that porn is exploitative and “presents women primarily as sex objects who are a means to the end of male pleasure”.
The argument against taking extreme measures to avoid damaging sensibilities was put forward well in this recent article. A key quote:
Real empowerment and respect is to see our fellow citizens—victims and privileged, religious and agnostic, conservative and liberal—as adults. Human beings are not automatons—ruled by drives and triggers they cannot control. On the contrary, we have the ability to decide not to be offended. We have the ability to discern intent. We have the ability to separate someone else’s actions or provocation or ignorance from our own. This is the great evolution of consciousness—it’s what separates us from the animals. . . .
There is a wonderful quote from Epictetus that I think of every time I see someone get terribly upset about one of these things (I try to think about it when I get upset about anything): “If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.”
He said that some 1,900 years ago. Even then we felt that it was easier to police the outside than examine our inside.
Control and discipline of one’s own reactions make for a successful person and a functioning society. I don’t think you want to live in a world where that isn’t the expectation of each of us. I don’t think you want to see the things that will need to happen when the burden of making sure everyone is happy and not offended is put on the government—or worse, a corrupt and bitter blogosphere.
Nicely put. Any flies in ointment? As always, yes. I am not aware of any good ideas that are unalloyed.
So here’s one fly.
The above rhetoric, which I generally endorse, works very well if a student aims to, say, restrict discussion of the classics or impose a pre-cut version of history in the classroom. But higher education today is not always so highminded.
It is odd, or perhaps not, that the fury over sanitizing the curriculum comes at a time when it is being dumbed down and coarsened. That coarsening process is of course part of the bread and circus appeal of modern higher education: give the people what they want so they keep paying tuition and fill the seats. For instance,
(w)e may remember last year when a professor at Northwestern held a supplemental session after his human sexuality class in which a woman was stimulated with a motorized dildo referred to as a “fucksaw” by a man who operated sex-toy tours in Chicago (neither were students) in front of about 120 students. Some people on campus — and around the country once the news broke — were outraged by this presentation which they felt was completely inappropriate for an academic setting.
Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, the same people who are in a lather about trigger warnings today were almost certainly in a lather, or at least a lubricant, over an in-class dildo demonstration.
Yesterday: “this stuff should not be taught! It is offensive!”
Today: “students have no right not to be offended!”
How to square these circles? Damned if I know. Here’s my attempt.
The problem with the dildo class is not really germane to the trigger warning discussion. The issue there is more straightforward: whether it is truly part of a worthwhile academic enterprise at a school like Northwestern.
If academic subjects are truly worth being taught, they should be run without apology or trigger warning. If college, properly understood, is seen by prospective students as opening new doors, some of them challenging, it is enough that the institution itself comes with an implied trigger warning covering all that happens within.
As to why colleges should be simultaneously promoting sex while getting into a neo-Victorian snit about it your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps unbeknownst to the outside world, the internal college hothouse in fact got too hot, and we are seeing within-the-institution conflicts being played out in public, with a heightening of tensions between neo-Victorian and licentious urges inside the academy. That may look contradictory to the outside world but it may have its own internal logic.
It is probably also the case that all sex is not created equal. In particular, sex involving power relations is highly suspect. Thus, the celebration of dildos but not porn aimed at capturing the male gaze.
And whether about sex, black lives or any other currently fetishized cause, the argument that we are morphing to a victimhood culture is pretty persuasive. That’s depressing too, since it suggests that some of the recent successful free speech pushbacks may be up against a formidable foe, one of a changing culture. Culture usually beats politics in the end.