The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Trigger warning: This post disparages the proliferation of trigger warnings


Trigger warning: This post is going to quote an op-ed that may offend sensitive readers. In particular, I am going to quote from a recent WSJ contribution by Harvey Silverglate, co-founder and chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) on the ridiculousness of hyper-sensitivity and trigger warnings on campus. If you think trigger warnings are a good idea, you might not want to keep reading, and certainly don't click the link to read the whole op-ed. If, on the other hand, you care about liberal arts education, believe in the ideals upon which a liberal arts education is premised and, above all else, believe that college students should be exposed to a wide range of ideas, many of which they may find challenging or unsettling, read on, click the link, and consider joining FIRE, which is perhaps the most important university-focused organization in the country today.

Silverglate's op-ed, "How Liberalism Is Killing the Liberal Arts," begins:

On campuses across the country, hostility toward unpopular ideas has become so irrational that many students, and some faculty members, now openly oppose freedom of speech. The hypersensitive consider the mere discussion of the topic of censorship to be potentially traumatic. Those who try to protect academic freedom and the ability of the academy to discuss the world as it is are swimming against the current. In such an atmosphere, liberal-arts education can't survive.

It then recounts the recent experience of noted author Wendy Kaminer who, when speaking at Smith, had the temerity to suggest that college students should be able to read an unbowlderized version of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, despite the presence of potentially offensive language, and (to the horror of many) actually repeated one of the words in question in discussing the book. For this, she was accused of having made racist remarks. Irony alert: The panel upon which she was speaking was titled "Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts."

Silverglate's op-ed, which should be read in its entirety, concludes:

Hypersensitivity to the trauma allegedly inflicted by listening to controversial ideas approaches a strange form of derangement-a disorder whose lethal spread in academia grows by the day. What should be the object of derision, a focus for satire, is instead the subject of serious faux academic discussion and precautionary warnings. For this disorder there is no effective quarantine. A whole generation of students soon will have imbibed the warped notions of justice and entitlement now handed down as dogma in the universities.