Trigger Warning Advocates Say They're Not For Censorship

Recent article on "The Coddling of the American Mind" stirs up passions about microaggressions and college campus discourse.


There's been a good amount of pushback to "The Coddling of the American Mind,"

You've been warned.
Flickr/Peter Miller

 the recently published Atlantic piece by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt which posited that the growing movement at America's colleges to "scrub campus clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense" is damaging to both intellectual discourse and students' mental health. Conceding that there's nothing wrong with a certain amount of sensitivity, they write:

Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal, especially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds. But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses.

Many of the responses to the article focus on the authors' status as "rich, white-skinned and well-established men, who work at the moment in business-type jobs," (though a lawyer working at a non-profit and a career academic might take issue with a few of those descriptors). Some accuse Lukianoff and Haidt of "hysteria," "scaremongering," and wanting to "silence discussions." Others offered some nuance by conceding that trigger warnings "run the risk of students avoiding or disengaging the material out of fear of being triggered," but think the threat to free expression in higher education is over-hyped. 

Writing at Social Work Helper, Chey Heap makes the case for policing microaggressions:

Actions deemed as microaggressions have no power by themselves. Think about a bee. A single bee sting does just that – it stings, it hurts. But overall there's not much damage. The entire hive going after you at once, however, can kill. There's a special word for this – synecdoche, where a small part of something symbolises the whole.

So, Haidt and Lukianoff ignore the context of why microaggressions are so dangerous: 1) Because they are present everywhere, all the time, and they steadily wear people down, 2) Each individual instance is so small it can be dismissed, which 3) Makes the less privileged person seem over-reactive to small misdemeanours, and therefore 4) Means nobody has to do anything about it.

Maddy Myers, writing at Mary Sue, defends millenial college students' rights as consumers:

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. Ahem. Anyway

I wish that articles about trigger warnings would stop throwing anxiety and PTSD sufferers under the bus as a veiled excuse to mock students' political correctness. If professors think trigger warnings are for "fragile" babies, then I'd hate to see how they navigate topics like sexism and racism in their classrooms.

The fact that millennials have begun to call out institutions for their backwards ways makes me feel proud. Any attempt to frame these young students as afraid, oversensitive, and irresponsible should be seen for what it is: old institutions unwilling to accommodate the diverse experiences of their students.

At Flavorwire, Sarah Seltzer speculates that being raised with the internet has affected the "millenial mindset" in ways that may be paradigm-shifting, and that "progressive efforts to open up dialogue and be more inclusive can occasionally result in overcorrection in the direction of punitive and censorious actions, missing nuance, and being generally tiresome," but remains unconvinced by Lukianoff and Haidt's thesis:

It may be, for instance, that social media's "with us or against us" style of arguing has bled over into classrooms. Perhaps the newfound ability to find a critical essay or negative review of any piece of work, no matter how canonical, with a simple click has reduced younger readers' reverence for "great works" or even for their teachers.  It may be that young folks' constant plugged-in state increases their exposure to terrifying news about police violence, the environment, rape culture, and the plunging economy — which has led to an increased sense of fear or desire for safety on campus.

At The Guardian, Lindy West, takes a maximalist approach to addressing students' concerns that their personal traumas will be revisited by classroom experiences:

It's a tidy way to link trigger warnings with the other progressive bogeyman du jour, political correctness, and all its sinister attendants: microaggressions, the supposed erosion of free speech, and the "right not to be offended". But all those concepts, when examined honestly, just boil down to treating marginalised groups with respect and humanity and striving to correct harmful imbalances. 

Maybe we can all get flippant and condescending about trigger warnings after we build a world where more than 3% of rapes lead to conviction, where we don't shame and blame people for their own victimisation, where men don't feel entitled to women's bodies, and where millions of people aren't moving through life yoked with massive, secret traumas.

Taking a different approach to trigger warnings than the aforementioned writers, Purdue University professor Freddie deBoer writes on his blog that he doesn't care for the term "political correctness," nor does he think it's ruining campus discourse, but adds:

If you really support trigger warnings on campus but oppose actual regulation of intellectual content on campus, you might get around to saying the latter once in awhile, rather than circling the wagons and insisting that it's all a conservative conspiracy.

Responding directly to West's comment about getting "flippant and condescending about trigger warnings," deBoer writes:

This strikes me as a classic example of a common progressive category error: this terrible injustice exists (and it does), so therefore you have to get on board with this heavy-handed policy that cannot possibly actually reduce that injustice. I am totally unclear as to how trigger warnings actually combat any of the problems that West identifies in that paragraph.

But more importantly: how exactly is anyone supposed to have a conversation after a statement like that is made? How are we supposed to sort good from better when the rhetorical cudgels of rape, victim blaming, male entitlement, and secret trauma have been deployed? The trigger warning conversation is so impossible precisely because of tactics like this: using the reality of trauma, and the horrors of trauma, as a means of guilt by association and ratcheting up the emotional stakes of the discussion. The whole conversation tends to get dragged down into recrimination and acrimony precisely because of this kind of argument, which seeks to cast people asking questions and raising concerns as apologists for terrible crimes. How can you have a conversation that way?

In their piece for The Atlantic, Lukianoff and Haidt directly address the idea of classrooms as literal "safe spaces" for students to be "exposed to incidental reminders of trauma":

A discussion of violence is unlikely to be followed by actual violence, so it is a good way to help students change the associations that are causing them discomfort. And they'd better get their habituation done in college, because the world beyond college will be far less willing to accommodate requests for trigger warnings and opt-outs.

In other words, shielding students from uncomfortable topics, conversations, and ideas does them a disservice, leaving them unable to develop the coping skills required of adulthood.