Campus Free Speech

How Trigger Warnings Protect Religious Dogma in the Classroom

Survey says: Not an epidemic, still cause for concern.



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.

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  1. Robby, are you defining “conservative” as any objection to material on sexual or religious grounds?

    1. Ah, I see that is a quote from Tyler Kinkade.

    2. I found “Indeed, there’s something stridently conservative underlying all efforts to restrict expression.” confusing, too.

      I can’t find any way in which the sentence makes sense other than a redefinition of “conservative” that makes “restricting expression” a uniquely conservative value.

      Which, well, it just ain’t, at least by any of the normal uses of the term, especially the ones that aren’t just pejoratives.

      1. I don’t think it’s a redefinition. Its more “conservative ” as in Edmund Burke, his descendents, standing atop history shouting “stop!” Sense.

        I don’t see why so few people fail to grasp that.

        1. Yeah, this is part of what I am trying to say. “Conservative” has meanings outside of the contemporary American political one.

          1. “Conservative” has meanings outside of the contemporary American political one.

            Here’s two examples:

            Lenore Skenazy advocates a very conservative style of parenting.

            ENB confesses to having conservative preference in her desired intimate relations

            They’re both true statements using the term in a non-pejorative sense

    3. I wouldn’t say it’s all conservative, but I do think that a lot of objections to depictions of sex and criticism of religion are motivated by conservative impulses.

      Conservative is a relative thing. It depends entirely on what traditions and established ways of doing things you are dealing with. Which is why there is such a difference between what it means politically in the US and in Europe.

      Also important to remember that “conservative” has non-political meanings too.

  2. I don’t particularly think students in an art history class should be exempted from studying “homoerotic art,” whatever their religious objections might be *that* is.

    1. “homoerotic art,” whatever … *that* is.

      You mean, the foundations of Western culture?

      1. “What’s a Grecian urn”?

        1. Something to do with buttsex, I think. And there’s an ode that people in high school have to read.

  3. I bet these trigger warnings are used because the court system has tended to protect religious beliefs for religious freedom but not for other beliefs leaving them more open to suit because of this court discrimination.

    1. I’m not sure how the courts have any effect here. Part of religious freedom is the freedom to criticize or mock other religions.

  4. There was even a “Rastafarian student [who] was very offended at my comparison of Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to Psalm 104.”

    With all due respect, if this is the kind of stuff you get bent out of shape about it’s time for some, um, soul-searching.

  5. Others note specific “religious objections to nude models in studio courses” and to “homoerotic content in art history.”

    Well, I would certainly be appreciative of a heads-up in those cases, however small, in order to avoid a “Whoa, there!”

    Do you think these professors are misdirecting the surveyors by alluding to religious sensitivity instead to cover over the uber-sensitivity of Marxians? I think they’re pulling the surveyors’ legs.

    1. Yes. Read the nonscientific survey and it is quite obvious. I also learned directly from Robby that Diane Fenstein is right-leaning, Pat Buchanan is not, and that all attempts to stifle free expression are stridently conservative

      1. The Feinstein thing made me wonder what Space is on.

  6. Objecting to, presumably, anti-Semitic tweets is the purview of the Right?

    I am not sure, because skimming through those articles I did not see much of a description of the contents.

    1. Maybe “the Right” and “the Left” don’t have much meaning outside of very broad generalizations. This should be pretty obvious to libertarians who, in most people’s minds, are all over the left-right spectrum. A principled approach to the world doesn’t usually result in what people would clearly recognize as right or left.

      I always think it is just weird when people say things like “Bernie Sanders is to the right of Hillary Clinton on guns”. What does that mean? Seems like “right” just means “more like what Republicans think”. It’s all just nonsense. Robby would do well to lay off labeling things that way. It’s just not helpful in a libertarian analysis of things.

  7. But that’s all the more reason for liberals to join cultural libertarians in opposing efforts to enshrine feelings-protection on campuses

    *Reason author stands and demands tides stop*

  8. 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

    Once somebody discovers a nifty new tool, everyone is gonna wanna use it.

    1. Dianne Feinstein is the right-leaner. She’s California’s right wing senator.

      1. What article was that in?

        1. The article you get if you click on the phrase “right-leaning attempts.”

          1. So, not from Robby.

            Seems like what they are saying is that attempts to control expression are inherently conservative. Not sure that I agree with that. But it’s not completely unintelligible. I kind of like the idea of poking the left by pointing out their conservative tendencies. Things like preserving indigenous ways of life unchanged and unmodernized or extreme environmentalism are extremely conservative in some sense.

            1. These terms are somewhat fluid, I grant you, and to a certain extent the attempt at definition gets silly, but I would say there are roughly certain people you can call left-wing or progressive* and some people you can call conservative.

              Roughly, in the American context the progs would be the ones who want to make radical social changes, based on either a rejection or a radical re-interpretation of the country’s founding principles and traditional morality. Conservatives in the American context are people who actively resist at least two of the goals of the progressives. So for example, we can say that someone who actively works against both Obamacare and transgender bathrooms is an American conservative.

              This is to be distinguished from the centrists and moderates who kind of go with the flow and, if the progs push hard enough, will stop resisting.

              *The term “liberal,” when used to describe progressives, is triggering to many libertarians so I’ll avoid the word.

              1. I pretty much agree. But I think that words like left, right, consevative, liberal, progressive all have distinct meanings (or can have), but tend to get lumped together because for whatever reason they got lumped together in certain political parties and social movements. People attach themselves to these movements and labels, but the labels rarely are an adequate description of anyone’s politics or social views. Some of the maddest proggies I know have some surprising conservative streaks about various things.

                1. Of course I agree it’s really convoluted, and of course it’s hard to describe political reality with one-word descriptions!

                  Because of this, as you know, there’s a certain class of politician who, like, doesn’t like labels, man, and why are you trying to pin me down with your definitions? And when I hear people like Bloomberg say such things, I generally assume that they *do* meet the definition of some term, they just don’t think it’s a term the public likes. (“jerk,” in the case of Bloomberg).

                  So that’s a reason to soldier on and try to get at least some approximate definitions.

      2. Oh, it goes deeper than that. The other right-wind censors denounced in the article are “[t]he university’s governing Board of Regents, with the support of University President Janet Napolitano and egged on by the state’s legislature.”

        Dianne Feinstein, Janet Napolitano and the California legislature are all “right-leaning!”

        In the other article, the censor was apparently a university chancellor, egged on by an anonymous, very rich, donor. Can either of them be considered “right-leaning?” I don’t know.

        1. The common element is that the alleged censors supported Israel, and (it is claimed) sought to suppress criticism of that country.

          The assumption, I suppose, is that only right-wingers support Israel? Or that any support of Israel is objectively right-wing?

          1. These days, it kind of is. Most of the Israel-bashing I see comes from the left these days.

            But a lot of the use of “conservative” I see is just a mild way of expressing disapproval. I remember the coup against Yeltsin, when CNN etc. described the Soviet Communist plotters as “conservatives.” Which I suppose was technically correct, but come on….

  9. But that’s all the more reason for liberals to join cultural libertarians…

    Please define “cultural libertarian”.

    1. They’re either jack rabbits or antelopes. The “liberaltarian” fusionism campaign is back!

      1. Hey, don’t laugh! I saw a jackalope once, stuffed in a shop in NM, so they’re real guy.
        Also, just FYI, The Jackalope store, I think around Santa Fe, is a really cool import-export place, or at least was 20 years ago.

    2. I’d define it as someone who wants culture to develop organically without top down control and who likes to mind their own business. Political and cultural libertarians aren’t necessarily the same people.

      But that’s just my definition.

      1. I guess I just don’t get it. I can understand how someone might be socially (culturally?) liberal yet a fiscal conservative, and vis-a-verse, but “your business is your business until it effects my rights” seems pretty… I don’t know, indivisible? You’re either for letting others make their own decisions or your not.
        For instance, the Amish will defend an aethist’s right to be free from religious laws, and expect to be let alone to live as conservatively religious as they want. I don’t know if that’s the example I want; I’m still trying to hash it out in my own head.

        1. Well, I think that a lot of political labels can have related non-political meanings. A political libertarian is as you describe. But they may well think that libertines are bad people who are going to hell. What I’m thinking is that a cultural libertarian would be someone who might think about personal disapproval of people’s behavior (as long as it doesn’t harm others) in a similar way to how a political libertarian thinks of criminalizing or regulating certain behaviors.

          Just my thoughts right now. It’s not a term I use or think about a lot.

    3. I think it’s what we in the biz sometimes call ‘small-l libertarian’. Differentiating ourselves from Libertarian Party members who are blue. Literally blue.

      1. “Literally blue”, so I guess you don’t mean Democrats.
        I’m being dense tonight, I guess. I just don’t get it.

        Anyways, you know who else talked about kultur?

        1. Like this guy.

          Weirdos who think drinking colloidal silver is good for you.

          1. I couldn’t operate the link, but do you mean this guy?

            1. Crap, I did a SugarFree.

              Yeah, that’s the guy. There were a few, but he was the bluest.

  10. The American Association of University Professors has a pretty emphatic statement against trigger warnings.

  11. “Yet another observed that “the Bible ? is a topic that can offend both fundamentalists and those who are not comfortable with religion.””

    Does this mean an equal number of “fundamentalists” and “those who are not comfortable with religion” are filing objections?

    Or does one group file more objections than the other?

    And technically, this respondent was only talking about stuff that *could* happen.

  12. Dude that makes a whole lot of sense to me man.

  13. But SPOILER ALERTS are still OK, right?

  14. Homoerotic art? I’d rather look at slots than sticks.

    Lucky – I skipped college.

  15. I had a trigger warning from my GF once.

    “If you don’t keep licking I’m never going out with you again.”

    1. Thank you for sharing!

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