Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Trigger Warnings" and the Coddling of the American Mind


A series of pieces revolving around the larger consideration on offer in Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt's "The Coddling of the American Mind" from The Atlantic follow. Here as a point of entry in considering it's premise, let's begin in relation to the growing spectrum of settings in which the "trigger warning" is becoming institutionalized as a practice; in academia, the arts, and public life. The discussion of it's problematic usage in relation to literature being an ideal access point, examined in a trio of pieces from The Atlantic, The Guardian and Jerry A. Coyne's notable piece for The New Republic, “Life Is "Triggering" The Best Literature Should Be, Too”. From which, the following quote elucidates the limitations of this approach to troubling content, not only in as it applies to literature, but in the broader liberal arts and life itself; "In the end, anybody can claim offense or triggering about anything: liberals about conservative politics, pacifists against violence, women against sexism, minorities against bigotry, Jews against anti-Semitism, Muslims against any mention of Israel, creationists against evolution, religionists against atheism, and so on. This ineluctably leads to a bland homogenization of all literature, and a stifling of challenging viewpoints. As someone who’s culturally Jewish, I’ve deliberately read anti-Semitic books like Mein Kampf, watched movies like Triumph of the Will, and read “triggering” material like The Diary of Anne Frank (trigger warning: anti-Semitism). I’ve deliberately visited Auschwitz to see what it was like (immensely disturbing and unforgettable; everyone should go), and I’ve read accounts of its inmates, like Primo Levi’s moving Survival in Auschwitz (see the extract published here). All of that saddened me, deeply upset me, and brought me to tears. But I am glad I did it, for in a way it’s enriched my life. It’s awakened me to not only what “decent people” are capable of under the right circumstances, but also to how humans can, in impossible situations, function and survive (or die) with bravery. Such literature shows us the full panoply of the human psyche, from its heights to its depths - and, after all, isn’t that what Shakespeare and Dostoevsky were about?"

Further perspective on these concurrent forms of embattled intellectualism, and it’s place in American learning institutions can be found from Anthony Van Jones in Frank Bruni's New York Times Sunday Review piece, "The Dangerous Safety of College". "Middlebury isn’t every school, and only a small fraction of Middlebury students were involved. But we’d be foolish not to treat this as a wake-up call, because it’s of a piece with some of the extraordinary demands that students at other campuses have made, and it’s the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education. It put me in mind of important remarks that the commentator Van Jones, a prominent Democrat and author of "The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems", made just six days beforehand at the University of Chicago, where he upbraided students for insisting on being swaddled in Bubble Wrap." From which Bruni quotes Van Jones; “I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically,” he told them. “I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous,” he added. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.” The above bears troubling relation to the broadening definitions of "trauma" and victimhood, for which Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, offers a useful framework for understanding, “Concept Creep: Psychology's Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology”, as covered in Conor Friedersdorf's "How Americans Became So Sensitive to Harm", for The Atlantic.

The New Yorker taking the premise of sensitivity policy and the ongoing trigger warning debate in higher education to it's logical conclusion in Patricia Marx satirical, "The Constitution of the United States, As Edited by the College Sensitivity Committee". For a deeper look into the on-campus movement previously detailed in the pages of the New York Times as it corresponds to the teaching of history and literature, look to Jennifer Medina's "Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm”. In which, "The debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace. “Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom,” said Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor at the university here, who often uses graphic depictions of torture in her courses about war. “Any student can request some sort of individual accommodation, but to say we need some kind of one-size-fits-all approach is totally wrong. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.” Rebecca Mead delivers some insightful angles as it relates to women on campus, and in the world, where environments conducive to sexism, threat and misogyny are not uncommon, in her New Yorker piece, "Literature and Life". "The trigger warning debate may seem esoteric, but it expresses a larger cultural preoccupation with achieving safety, and a fear of living in its absence. The hope that safety might be found, as in a therapist’s office, in a classroom where literature is being taught is in direct contradiction to one purpose of literature, which is to give expression through art to difficult and discomfiting ideas, and thereby to enlarge the reader’s experience and comprehension. The classroom can never be an entirely safe space, nor, probably, should it be."

Taking an official stance in relation to it's influence in academia and environments of higher learning, by establishing policy directed toward the new freshman body, a vanguard high profile move saw the, "University of Chicago Strike Back Against Campus Political Correctness". Issuing the below statement; “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” John Ellison, dean of students, wrote to members of the class of 2020, who will arrive next month. In their report assembled by the faculty Committee on Freedom of Expression appointed by Dr. Zimmer and headed by Professor Stone the university established the foundation of their stance. In the wake of the committee's report, several other universities, including Princeton, Purdue, Columbia and the University of Wisconsin system, have adopted similar policies or statements, some of which taken almost verbatim from that of the University of Chicago. That year's letter to University of Chicago freshmen specifically cites the report as embodying the university’s point of view. The objectives of it's policy surmised in The Washington Post's "Don’t Ask Us for Trigger Warnings or Safe Spaces, the University of Chicago Tells Freshmen". From which the school's dean, John Ellison, is quoted; "In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission."
Painting credit: Antonio da Correggio