Tuesday, August 11, 2015

These Aren't The Trigger Warnings You're Looking For

The Atlantic has a fine essay by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt about the consequences of the "trigger warning" culture on university campuses. Its better parts concern the academy's newfound focus of "emotional reasoning" and the "microaggressions" it spawns, turning everything into an assault ("teaching students to catastrophize", an unfelicitous word), even (and especially) any ideas that conflict with the viewer.
Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.
While the idea that political games can ever be "positive-sum" betrays a profound indifference to how the sausages get made in D.C. and elsewhere, the rest of it is certainly true. So of course The Mary Sue had to publish a fairly predictable attempt at rebuttal; Maddy Myers tries heroically to live up to the headline ("Saying Trigger Warnings 'Coddle The Mind' Completely Misses The Point") and even more the sub-hed ("Why doesn't anyone understand how PTSD works?"). Myers admits she was helped by exposure therapy but then demands the world outside the psychologist's office should be encased in bubble wrap for the protection of anyone who might find something offensive or skeery:
This article does very little to explore how educators might better serve PTSD sufferers; instead, the piece seems to assert that educators shouldn’t have to change a thing. Also, the title, photo, and overall framing of the piece emphasizes the myth of the oversensitive, trophy-hoarding millennial who just wants to get out of doing their homework. This assumption supposes that young college students are using their “fragile” natures as an excuse to not engage with “words and ideas they don’t like” (e.g. “students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile”).
... This is just one in a long line of misunderstandings on the part of older college professors who actually just seem angry at the “political correctness” their modern students have begun to demand. They may try to characterize us as literal babies, but they’re the ones who look like babies to me, given the refusal to acknowledge their students’ experiences. They can’t be bothered to make small changes to their own curriculums that might better facilitate conversations among their students about media depictions of violence, rape, assault, war, kidnapping, and so on.
The "refusal to acknowledge their students' experiences" demands that the world needs to bend to the author's wishes; professors are not there to instruct. Instead, in this telling, they exist to serve PTSD sufferers, i.e. a minority. It derives directly from a very self-centered place, i.e. the prerogatives of the customer, even though she has no evidence they're even helpful in dealing with people having PTSD symptoms:
I like the idea of trigger warnings, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure they do much to protect people from panic attacks. Unfortunately, almost no articles that discuss trigger warnings seem particularly interested in centering the experiences of people with anxiety and PTSD, and how those people might be better served by institutions and classes that they’re paying thousands and thousands of dollars to attend.
Complaints that the university is increasingly in thrall to the student-as-customer are very old, but it's hard to think of one more starkly destructive to actual learning. She similarly doesn't grapple with Lukianoff and Haidt's many examples of the negative consequences of "trigger warnings": Harvard Law students asking out of rape law classes, idiotic "microaggressions" at U. California that included such "triggers" as “America is the land of opportunity”, or, even reading books in public:
In a particularly egregious 2008 case, for instance, Indiana University–Purdue University at Indianapolis found a white student guilty of racial harassment for reading a book titled Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The book honored student opposition to the Ku Klux Klan when it marched on Notre Dame in 1924. Nonetheless, the picture of a Klan rally on the book’s cover offended at least one of the student’s co-workers (he was a janitor as well as a student), and that was enough for a guilty finding by the university’s Affirmative Action Office.
Going against type, the non-adulatory comments following The Mary Sue essay are actually interesting. One commenter points out that, despite the author's insistence that trigger warnings are merely misunderstood, The Mary Sue itself recently carried a story about a Crafton Hills College student, upon learning she was assigned as reading the graphic novels PersepolisFun HomeY: The Last Man Vol. 1, and The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House, suggesting that proper courses of action:
Schultz’s response? “At least get a warning on the books. At most I would like the books eradicated from the system. I don’t want them taught anymore. I don’t want anyone else to have to read this garbage.”
Which is to say, the final destination is censorship. Unfortunately, Myers doesn't especially care about that.

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