A new survey of university professor's attitudes toward trigger warnings is being touted as proof that media panic over campus censorship is overblown. But a close look at the survey offers plenty of reasons for concern—chiefly, that trigger warnings are being used to enshrine religious sensitivity in the classroom.
The National Coalition Against Censorship released the results of its survey on Tuesday; the group interviewed some 800 members of the Modern Language Association and College Art Association about the use of trigger warnings on their campuses. The survey is not scientific.
Analyzing the survey for The Huffington Post, education reporter Tyler Kingkade wrote an article titled "The Prevailing Narrative on Trigger Warnings Is Just Plain Wrong":
Despite the media scare stories, trigger warnings are not widely used by college professors across the country, according to a survey released in full on Tuesday. They're not even widely demanded by students. And when they are used, the warnings address both liberal and conservative concerns.
The nonscientific survey, conducted by the National Coalition Against Censorship, is the first of its kind to gather data on the actual use of trigger warnings in college classes. The conclusion: While professors are fretting about the possibility, there is "no crisis."
It's true that there's currently no crisis. As Kingkade points out, practically no professors said they had been forced to use trigger warnings, and only a minority of respondents had even been asked to do so by students.
But there's still ample cause for worry. As the survey itself warns:
The demand for warnings, even though pressed by only a minority of students, may nonetheless affect the educational environment for a great many more students if instructors–many understandably nervous about job security–change how or what they teach as a result, if students themselves feel constrained about discussing topics that might be "triggering" to others, or if warnings operate to "shut down dialogue and shame participants in such a way that those participants actually leave the conversation."
Remember that the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights increasingly requires universities to safeguard their students from subjective harassment, and the easiest way for administrators to avoid liability is to embrace broad restrictions on speech and conduct that could get the school in trouble. (Remember Laura Kipnis?)
So while it likely is the case—and may continue to be the case—that very few students want to be protected from offensive ideas, the playing field is titled in their direction.
This is a bad thing, and liberals ought to recognize it as such. Indeed, the survey spells out the problem: trigger warnings are explicitly being requested as a means to shield religious people from in-class criticism. From the survey:
In fact, many respondents commented about warnings to address religious sensitivities. A respondent who teaches and holds an administrative post reports receiving "many complaints, some with parental involvement. These have mostly been religious objections." Others note specific "religious objections to nude models in studio courses" and to "homoerotic content in art history." Another explained that "the trigger warnings that I place in my general education Humanities course syllabus have to do with religious and moral content that might be offensive to persons who are zealous about their particular faith." Yet another observed that "the Bible … is a topic that can offend both fundamentalists and those who are not comfortable with religion." There was even a "Rastafarian student [who] was very offended at my comparison of Akhenaten's Great Hymn to Psalm 104."
Is this not cause for some concern? I don't particularly think students in an art history class should be exempted from studying "homoerotic art," whatever their religious objections might be. And I certainly don't think professors should have to cater to their offendedness.
Kingkade (and others) are absolutely right that assaults on free speech and academic freedom at university campuses do not come solely from the left, and left-leaning attempts to stifle free speech may have gotten a disproportionate share of attention lately, when right-leaning attempts are often just as blatant. Indeed, there's something stridently conservative underlying all efforts to restrict expression.
But that's all the more reason for liberals to join cultural libertarians in opposing efforts to enshrine feelings-protection on campuses—and to do so now, before we lose any more ground.