If message control counts for something, this year’s college commencement season has been hijacked by a band of leftist extremists. Working hand-in-hand with radical leftist professors this group has succeeded in making a number of high-profile commencement speakers feel unwelcome on campus.
The spectacle of seeing so many distinguished people withdraw from commencement speaking commitments has radically transformed the events. What would normally be a moment of celebration has become a time for debating how far student Brown Shirts should be allowed to dictate what is taught on college campus.
Now, the Empire is striking back, but, you have to wonder whether it is too little, too late. After all, college administrators allowed this to happen.
Everyone applauded William Bowen, former president of Princeton University and replacement speaker for former Berkeley chancellor, Robert Birgenau, when he told the graduates of Haverford College that they were “immature” and “arrogant.”
Former Brown president Ruth Simmons did well in her commencement address at Smith College to lecture the students on the importance of being able to debate even offensive ideas. Simmons was a last-minute replacement for IMF president Christine Lagarde.
Perhaps we should cheer that the attacks on today’s Brown Shirted reactionaries—disguised as revolutionary radicals—come from both side of the political spectrum.
In today’s Wall Street Journal graduates received the withering contempt of Bret Stephens. He has helped them to become aware of how they look to the outside world. It’s not a pretty picture.
Stephens addressed them directly:
Here you are, 22 or so years on planet Earth, and your entire lives have been one long episode of offense-avoidance. This spotless record has now culminated in your refusals to listen to commencement speakers whose mature convictions and experiences might offend your convictions and experiences, or what passes for them.
For the Class of 2014, it seems that inviolable ignorance is the only true bliss.
Just so no one believes that the current commencement kerfuffle is an aberration Stephens recounts some of the nonsense that college students have been studying. This blogger has made an effort to bring it to your attention.
Commencement speakers aside, today’s radical college students have demanded “transformative justice,” have called for awareness of “micro-aggressions” and have pressed for “trigger warnings” on potentially traumatizing classroom material.
Before quoting Stephens, let us underscore that the demand for transformative justice and the discussion of micro-aggressions has been led by the Obama administration. It has not descended from the moon.
Stephens described these phenomena:
In February, students at Dartmouth issued a list of 72 demands for "transformative justice." Among them: "mandate sensitivity training"; "organize continuous external reviews of the College's structural racism, classism, ableism, sexism and heterosexism"; and "create a policy banning the Indian mascot." When the demands weren't automatically met, the students seized an administration building.
At Brown, a Facebook FB +0.32% page is devoted to the subject of "Micro/Aggressions," a growth area in the grievance industry. Example of a micro-aggression: "As a dark-skinned Black person, I feel alienated from social justice spaces or conversations about institutional racism here at Brown when non-Black people of color say things like 'let's move away from the White-Black binary.' "
And then there are "trigger warnings." In Saturday's New York Times,NYT +1.47% Jennifer Medina reports that students and like-minded faculty are demanding warnings on study material that trigger "symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder." Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" was cited by one faculty document at Oberlin as a novel that could "trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more."
Students ought to understand that these efforts to restrict freedom of expression make them look like fools. Thus, the value of their degrees and the respect that they might have received for earning them has diminished.
In Stephens’ words:
Any student who demands—and gets—emotional pampering from his university needs to pay a commensurate price in intellectual derision. College was once about preparing boys and girls to become men and women, not least through a process of desensitization to discomfiting ideas.
The semi- and post-literates who overran the humanities departments at most universities long before I ever set foot in college are the main culprits here. Then again, it shouldn't be that hard to figure out what it takes to live in a free country. The ideological brainwashing that takes place on campus isn't (yet) coercive. Mainly, it's just onanistic.
Obviously, you expect as much from a good conservative like Bret Stephens. And yet, when it comes to trigger warnings, writers at the Guardian, hardly a right wing publication, have also sounded a tocsin of alarm.
Jill Filipovic denounced the repressive attitude behind the call for trigger warnings:
Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings don't just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with "that's triggering". Students should – and do – have the right to walk out of any classroom. But students should also accept the challenge of exploring their own beliefs and responding to disagreement. Trigger warnings, of course, don't always shut down that kind of interrogation, but if feminist blogs are any example, they quickly become a way to short-circuit uncomfortable, unpopular or offensive arguments.
Surely, we need to underscore, for the purposes of this blog that trigger warnings are supposed to be therapeutic. They are supposed to shield trauma victims from painful memories.
Writing in The New Republic Jenny Jarvie offered an excellent analysis of what is wrong with the notion:
The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense. And yet, for all the debate about the warnings on campuses and on the Internet, few are grappling with the ramifications for society as a whole.
Most psychological research on P.T.S.D. suggests that, for those who have experienced trauma, "triggers" can be complex and unpredictable, appearing in many forms, from sounds to smells to weather conditions and times of the year. In this sense, anything can be a trigger—a musky cologne, a ditsy pop song, a footprint in the snow.
For my part I would add that when therapists try to help people to overcome trauma they use exposure to ideas and images associated with the trauma to desensitize them. Protecting trauma victims from anything that they might associate with a trauma causes them more, not less distress. It puts the therapist in league with the abuser.
I believe that the concept of trigger words and images comes down to us from the practice of deconstruction. The argument is too complicated to present in today’s post, but Jarvie has offered a good account of what’s wrong with this effort to stifle intellectual debate:
One of the problems with the concept of triggering—understanding words as devices that activate a mechanism or cause a situation—is it promotes a rigid, overly deterministic approach to language. There is no rational basis for applying warnings because there is no objective measure of words' potential harm. Of course, words can inspire intense reactions, but they have no intrinsic danger. Two people who have endured similarly painful experiences, from rape to war, can read the same material and respond in wholly different ways.
More importantly, they reinforce the fear of words by depicting an ever-expanding number of articles and books as dangerous and requiring of regulation. By framing more public spaces, from the Internet to the college classroom, as full of infinite yet ill-defined hazards, trigger warnings encourage us to think of ourselves as more weak and fragile than we really are.
Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.
As it happened, and as has been widely reported, the impetus for trigger warnings comes to us from feminism, or, from the more radical branches of feminism.
Dare I say that I find this somewhat strange? From its inception second wave feminism has actively promoted the explicit discussion and the open exposure of all private matters, especially as they involve the female body and female sexuality. And it has insisted on the exposure of the truth and the horror of sexual shaming, sexual abuse, sexual molestation and rape.
Feminism has held that the patriarchy was repressing female sexuality by hiding it behind veils. And it has added that the patriarchy was covering up sexual crimes against women. It has made it its mission to expose it all to the light of day. It has been at war with feminine modesty.
Should we expect that the highly estimable Jezebel site should now come with a trigger warning? Is there anything that the feminist writers on that site would consider to be too raunchy, too horrifying or too obscene to be exposed to public view?
And it is worth mentioning that literature and the arts used to have an unwritten discretion code. True enough, bad things happen in the Bible and in the Iliad. They do in Shakespeare, too.
And yet, these canonical texts—the ones that students are often advised not to read—never present violent actions merely for the purpose of provoking or inciting the readers.
Since contemporary radicals hate the canon, and have convinced far too many students not to read it. They are left with literary and artistic works that, being unable to evoke civilized emotions mask their mediocrity by including scenes and images that are designed to shock the sensibility of any normal human being.
For the people who promoted this kind of schlock to demand trigger warnings is a very rich irony, indeed.