Not long ago, my eleven-year-old son jokingly asked me if I had been “triggered” by something his older brother had said. A term that has its origins in the study of post-traumatic stress disorder is evidently now common currency for the eleven year old set.
The University of Chicago recently has won both praise and criticism for a letter it sent to first-year students informing them that, among other things, the college did not favor “trigger warnings.” In a university classroom, such warnings flag course content that students might find traumatic. At Oberlin College, for example, a resource guide advised professors “Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”
It’s important to note that this guide was discarded because faculty at Oberlin vehemently opposed it. Oberlin is among the most left-leaning of all of our colleges and universities, so those who worry that such warnings are sweeping our universities and that professors have given up on challenging their students probably have less to worry about than they think.
At the same time, some critics of the University’s stance are being disingenuous about trigger warnings. In what can only be described as a screed directed at the University of Chicago’s position, Kevin Gannon of Grand View University asks: “If I’m teaching historical material that describes war crimes like mass rape, shouldn’t I disclose to my students what awaits them in these texts? If I have a student suffering from trauma due to a prior sexual assault, isn’t a timely caution the empathetic and humane thing for me to do?”
But, as my eleven year old could tell you, the idea of triggering is today detached from its roots in the psychology of post-traumatic stress disorder. Advocates of trigger warnings are not only or primarily sufferers from that condition or people who want to help them. Consider the students at Columbia who made an ultimately unsuccessful bid to include trigger warnings in Columbia’s Core Curriculum. They were concerned with the broad question of “transgressions concerning student identities” and the “impacts that the Western canon has had and continues to have on marginalized groups.” The students, while in no way denying that the principles undergirding Western civilization have “been liberating in many ways” want instructors “more consistently [to] acknowledge during class discussions that many of these same principles have created an unjust, unequal, and oppressive existence for many.” I don’t take these students to be villains or fanatics and there is no reason to think that discussions of the West should whitewash it, though it hardly seems likely that a curriculum that includes Rousseau, Marx, Fanon, Du Bois, and Foucault actually does so. But we should not pretend that the debate over trigger warnings is about whether or not we should show compassion or concern for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Also disingenuous, not to say disgraceful, is the attempt to dismiss critics of trigger warnings as right wingers, as Yale’s Jim Sleeper has done in Sunday’s New York Times. Sleeper goes after Greg Lukianoff and the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) as part of an irrational conservative backlash against universities. Sleeper’s reasoning goes like this. Donald Trump has attacked political correctness. Greg Lukianoff has attacked political correctness. So Greg Lukianoff is Donald Trump. I’m joking only a little—Sleeper says that Trump’s “rampages” are “just like” FIRE’s attacks on political correctness. Lukianoff who describes himself as a liberal, “a former A.C.L.U. person who worked in refugee camps,” is cast as a conservative, even though his organization defends left wing as well as right wing speech because, well, some conservatives like what he has to say. I suppose that means that President Obama, Michael Bloomberg, Wendy Kaminer, Jonathan Chait, the American Association of University Professors, and others once thought to be part of the middle or middle left are in fact part of a right-wing spin machine.
There is a debate on the left about trigger warnings, safe spaces and all the rest, but Sleeper’s ritual invocation of “conservatives” tells us that academics need not listen to the arguments. If “conservatives” doesn’t do the trick, Sleeper’s mention of the “Koch brothers” (gasp!), from whom FIRE had the audacity to accept money, surely will. Sleeper and others who take his line insist that they are merely in favor of protecting robust debate within the academy from conservative outsiders who threaten it. But their attempt falsely to paint opponents of trigger warnings as conservative tools signals to the left-leaning academy that they need pay no attention to the arguments against trigger warnings.
I suppose that’s the point.