Civil Liberties

How Trigger Warnings Make College Students Helpless, Humorless, and Stupid

Cognitive disorders of college students



Picture a conference that exists for the following purpose: to give student-leaders of various colleges the opportunity to preview stand-up acts and decide which comedians they would like to invite to their campuses. No, you are not picturing some imaginary hell. You are picturing a very real event: the annual convention of the National Association for Campus Activities.

This convention takes center-stage in a riveting, recent article by The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan, who explains why students' excessive deference to political correctness obligates comedians to self-censor if they want to play the lucrative college circuit. A snapshot:

A young gay man with a Broadway background named Kevin Yee sang novelty songs about his life, producing a delirium of affection from the audience. "We love you, Kevin!" a group of kids yelled between numbers. He invited students to the front of the auditorium for a "gay dance party," and they charged down to take part. His last song, about the close relationship that can develop between a gay man and his "sassy black friend," was a killer closer; the kids roared in delight, and several African American young women in the crowd seemed to be self-identifying as sassy black friends. I assumed Yee would soon be barnstorming the country. But afterward, two white students from an Iowa college shook their heads: no. He was "perpetuating stereotypes," one of them said, firmly. "We're a very forward-thinking school," she told me. "That thing about the 'sassy black friend'? That wouldn't work for us." Many others, apparently, felt the same way: Yee ended up with 18 bookings—a respectable showing, but hardly a reflection of the excitement in the room when he performed. …

As I listened to the kids hash out whom to invite, it became clear that to get work, a comic had to be at once funny—genuinely funny—and also deeply respectful of a particular set of beliefs. These beliefs included, but were in no way limited to, the following: women, as a group, should never be made to feel uncomfortable; people whose sexual orientation falls beyond the spectrum of heterosexuality must be reassured of their special value; racial injustice is best addressed in tones of bitter anguish or inspirational calls to action; Muslims are friendly helpers whom we should cherish; and belonging to any potentially "marginalized" community involves a crippling hypersensitivity that must always be respected.

A similarly excellent, just-published companion article written by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education President Greg Lukianoff and psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the trends that have normalized such a repressive intellectual environment for campus comedy. Students' desires for emotional protection from ideas that might offend them—institutionalized as trigger warnings, microaggressions, and the like—mimic certain cognitive disorders, Lukianoff and Haidt claim. Vindictive protectiveness—their name for the new regime of speech-curtailing measures on campuses—leaves students unprepared for the real world and may actually worsen their social anxieties:

There's a saying common in education circles: Don't teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

Vindictive protectiveness hurts all students by depriving them of the considerable intellectual benefits of a campus that tolerates controversial speakers—from offensive comedians like Chris Rock to political extremists like Bill Ayers. It also hurts the faculty, who increasingly feel compelled to self-censor if they want to keep their jobs.

But ultimately, vindictive protectiveness even harms the very people it is intended to protect—emotionally-fragile students—by teaching them unhealthy avoidance tactics.

Related: Reason TV interviews Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis about feminism and emotional fragility on campuses.