Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Trigger Warnings

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.

He continued:

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.


Sam L. said...

If you are not emotionally ready to encounter the real world, you are not emotionally ready to enter college either. Go home, get strong, and come back when you are ready to cope with people who do not think the same as you do.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Sam. If you're not ready to be independent, or at least try it on (which most young people aren't doing these days, and aren't allowed to by their parents), you certainly aren't ready to deal with the horrors of having a roommate, dealing with your own food choices, picking your own friends, telling your hippie parents to get bent and that you're joining a fraternity, telling your preppy parents to get bent and you're joining the organic farming collective, WHATEVER! Just do something, etc. Please. Waiting for someone's approval or protesting someone's disapproval in the name of "heaven-on-Earth socialism" or "free-market-nirvana capitalism" is nonsense. Nonsense! Enough of this theoretical enablement. Grow up!


Memphis Steve said...

I don't find the hypocrisy of the feminists shocking at all. They'e been hypocritical in the extreme since day one. Their goal is power and control, not equal rights, and that will never change. Hypocrisy is just a means to an end and it works for them. No one has ever held a feminist accountable.

Dennis said...

Now to the people who will really make a difference in the world:


If one cannot handle the little things they are destined to fail at the big things of life. It is the challenges, no matter the kind, that make us what we are and our ability to succeed.

I am so glad that I went into the military at 17. It taught me that I had the ability to withstand those challenges if I relied on the inner strengths that are inherent in most of us. Especially if we do not allow the weak minded and the "aint it awful" to control us.

Ares Olympus said...

I learned about an unofficial diagnosis HSP (Highly-sensitive person) maybe 8 or 9 years ago from a friend.
"According to Elaine N. Aron and colleagues as well as other researchers, highly sensitive people, who compose of about a fifth of the population (equal numbers in men and women), may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems."

It's apparently a helpful diagnosis for people who feel like they are different and can't otherwise explain why everyone else seems to be able to cope with life while they're constantly on the defensive, while simultaneously trying and failing to connect.

So the HSP diagnosis seems in part intended to help such people with their self-esteem, to see they're not just crazy, and have gifts to give the world as well.

The problem comes it seems is when you decide you're "special" and need special treatment compared to everyone else. And then the question of "respect" arises, and that "being respectful" means recognizing the sensitivities of another and avoiding making them uncomfortable. And it goes downhill fast from there.

The only escape I've seen from this one-way disaster of sensitivity is to belief we're all hypocrites, so if someone considers requests special treatment, then they also ought to treat others with equal respect and consideration.

Anyway, I wonder if the Feminists are also working through their own sensitivities, and, right, I remember now - if I'm not just alone in my sensitivity, and there's others like me, then when I defend my boundaries of safety, I can imagine I'm standing up for the rights of all those oppressed like me, or something like that.

So that line of thinking encourages personal sensitivities to become imaginary campaigns against oppression that confuse everyone who can't see the problems.

Anyway, I don't want to just blame the feminists who are on their righteous campaigns, but something must crack eventually, right, and they'll see their own hypocrisy and backtrack?

Learning in public is a humiliating thing, and pride makes fools of us all, but maybe that's how we also learn humility, once we've played all the sides?

paddy mouser said...

Why didn't this insensitive blog post come with a trigger warning? I'm traumatized after reading it! Help!

Anonymous said...

Trigger warning: shockingly politically incorrect


Anonymous said...

All this brings back fond memories of a great hostage negotiations instructor in a law enforcement training class I once attended.

His first words to the assembled group: "I understand that many people these days are sensitive to foul coarse language.

"So if any of you here today are offended by cussing, get the f**k out."