A finger on the trigger warning
College campuses, often held up as the ideal locales for free-flowing discussions, are circling the wagons around students some say are too sensitive to hear discussions on issues that could trigger emotions related to a trauma or abuse some of them may have experienced.
Critics, though, say the movement toward “trigger warnings” stifles the very kind of free speech needed to allow meaningful discourse and walling off students for fear of their reactions is a misguided approach.
The growing debate has opened up administrators and professors to derision for coddling kids and keeping them from growing up and toughening up. The focus on the issue has resurfaced after the University of Chicago issued a statement saying it does not support the practice of a small number of colleges of providing “trigger warnings” to students. The decision has spawned a wide range of reaction — from conservatives who say it’s about time to students who have been victims who fear they will be subjected to the trauma resurfacing by an unexpected discussion of events such as rape or abuse.
As in the outside world, there is a difference of opinion on campuses. Brown University President Christine Paxson says her school provides a safe atmosphere for all students but says there is no consideration to mandate stifling discussion on any subjects.
While much of the discussion for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” focuses on traumatic events such as rape and abuse, in some areas they are being expanded to include racial profiling and harassment. At Brandeis University, Asian students created a display to highlight what they term as microaggresions, featuring such stereotypes as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” But the Asian student group was forced to remove the display after other students said they felt “triggered” by the microaggression of the display. The school president apologized to those who were traumatized.
At Harvard, some law professors have foregone discussion of rape law for fear of offending or traumatizing victims.
A nonscientific survey by the National Coalition Against Censorship found that among more than 800 professors who responded, 75 percent said students demanded “trigger warnings” be required with another 15 percent requesting they be included in course material. About 12 percent said students complained about the lack of “trigger warnings.”
While critics point the finger at professors for creating the campus bubble, the survey found the vast majority of professors think “trigger warnings” stifle free speech. As one professor wrote in the survey, “trigger warnings cover my ass, but they do seem to have a couple of adverse effects. First, they create an expectation that exchanges will likely be contentious rather than cooperative. Second, they seem to suppress free inquiry and speculative (‘what if’) discussions, primarily for students but also for me.”
Some on-campus critics have taken to mocking “trigger warnings.” A New York University professor wrote in his syllabus for Introduction to United States History, “No need for Germans, Italians, or Japanese — or their descendants — to show up. We won, they lost. Any questions?”
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