Toni Airaksinen lists some of the trigger warnings she’s encountered these days at Barnard.
As a student at Barnard, a private womenâ€™s college in Manhattan, I come across trigger warnings daily. Most often, I see them in campus Facebook groups, but occasionally too in campus magazines or during in-class conversations.
Online, where I encounter them most frequently, these warnings take the form of captions at the top of posts. They say â€œtrigger warningâ€ or â€œcontent warning,â€ or simply, â€œtwâ€ or â€œcw.â€
Here are some of the topics Iâ€™ve recently seen trigger warnings on. (And no, trigger warnings arenâ€™t given ironically. To do so would be insensitive, you jerk.)
PokemonHuh? Pokemon GO is problematic? Yes, of course it is. Everything is problematic. But why? Well, some people believe Pokemon GO is a racist and classist game. Not only that, but people have alleged that itâ€™s ableist, too. So much for â€œitâ€™s just a game.â€ (Pictured, screenshot of actual trigger warning)
I did a double take when I saw â€œtw: constitutionâ€ placed on a post rejoicing the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The logic is simple: the U.S. is, according to some students and professors, a tyrannical and colonialistic empire founded via the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. For students, particularly those of color, the Constitution needs a trigger warning because it could prompt thoughts of oppression, persecution, genocide, and other social ills.
Contemporary feminism deems men as oppressors and threats. And in the hierarchy of oppressors, white men sit atop the food chain. So not only do I come across trigger warnings on posts about men â€” what theyâ€™ve said or done â€” but I also saw this one: â€œTW: white menâ€ â€” used on an article on fraternity brothers behaving badly.
At my school, contempt for conservatives is de rigueur. Anyone to the political right is considered not just bad, but dangerous. Thus, mentions of politicians such as Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Paul Ryan, or conservative values (such as gun rights), often come with a trigger warning attached. For example, itâ€™s not uncommon to see a news article with something Donald Trump said tagged with â€œtrigger warning: Trump, racism.â€
Need I say more? I live in New York City; whenever the police are spotted on campus, my timeline erupts in trigger warnings. Statuses such as â€œTrigger warning: Just seen on Broadway Ave and 116th Street, NYPD vans. Stay inside!â€ are common. Police are associated with police brutality, racism, and the historical legacy of black oppression in America.
Traditional Gender Roles
The traditional male/female binary is oppressive, according to far-left logic. It limits women, weâ€™re told. So, any references to gender roles can be hurtful. For example, it may be triggering to ask a female student if she wants children when sheâ€™s older, because to ask would be to play into the stereotype that women have an inherent maternal instinct, we have been warned.
There are other topics, of course. Thanksgiving. The Second Amendment. And so on. But to cite them all would be like trying to list all the â€œismsâ€ â€” itâ€™s an endless parade of affronts that seemingly has no end in sight.
Georgetown Law School issued a press release in observation of the recent death of Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, headlined “Georgetown Law Mourns the Loss of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.” The release quoted law school dean William M. Treanor, as saying, “Scalia was a giant in the history of the law, a brilliant jurist whose opinions and scholarship profoundly transformed the law.”
But not everyone at Georgetown Law subscribes to the old principle De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum, Professor Gary Peller dissented via a mass emailing, and an article attacking the legacy of Scalia in Tikkun. (His email was appended to the Tikkun article).
Peller said (in part):
I was put-off by the invocation of the â€œGeorgetown Communityâ€ in the press release that Dean Treanor issued Saturday. I imagine many other faculty, students and staff, particularly people of color, women and sexual minorities, cringed at headline and at the unmitigated praise with which the press release described a jurist that many of us believe was a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry, one whose intellectual positions were not brilliant but simplistic and formalistic.
I am not suggesting that J. Scalia should have been criticized on the day of his death, nor that the â€œcommunityâ€ should not be thankful for his willingness to meet with our students. But he was not a legal figure to be lionized or emulated by our students. He bullied lawyers, trafficked in personal humiliation of advocates, and openly sided with the party of intolerance in the â€œculture warsâ€ he often invoked. In my mind, he was not a â€œgiantâ€ in any good sense.
Two more conservative law professors, Randy Barnett and Nick Rosenkranz, responded waggishly, employing the “trigger warning” and “safe space” rhetoric of the left to turn the tables on Professor Peller.
For oneâ€™s colleagues to write, within hours of the death of someone one knows, likes, and admires, that he was a â€œdefender of privilege, oppression and bigotry, one whose intellectual positions were not brilliant but simplistic and formalistic,â€ is startlingly callous and insulting, not only to his memory but to those of us who admired him. To hear from oneâ€™s colleagues, within hours of the death of a hero, mentor, and friend, that they resent any implication that they might mourn his death â€” that, in effect, they are glad he is dead â€“ is simply cruel beyond words. But, though the insult and cruelty of our colleagues was grievous, at least only two of us had to bear it.
Unfortunately, the next day, recognizing full well that he would â€œcause â€¦ hurt [to] those with affection for J. Scalia,â€ and in violation of Georgetown email policy, Prof. Peller forwarded his email and Prof. Seidmanâ€™s to the entire student body at Georgetown Law, some 2000 students. Of those, at least a few hundred are conservative or libertarian. These students received an email yesterday, from a Georgetown Law professor, just three days after the death of Justice Scalia, which said, in effect, your hero was a stupid bigot and we are not sad that he is dead.
Although this email was upsetting to us, we could only imagine what it was like for these students. Some of them are twenty-two year-old 1Ls, less than six months into their legal education. But we did not have to wait long to find out. Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry, were their fellow students. Of particular concern to them were the students who are in Professor Pellerâ€™s class who must now attend class knowing of his contempt for Justice Scalia and his admirers, including them. How are they now to participate freely in class? What reasoning would be deemed acceptable on their exams?
Detail, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1621-1625, Galleria Borghese, Rome
Four student members of a Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board at Columbia editorialized recently about the hazard of representative elements of the Humanities canon proving triggering for students, particularly for minority students and the poor.
Instead of reading all the naughty bits in Ovid, they proposed that a bit more Toni Morrison might be in order.
During the week spent on Ovidâ€™s â€œMetamorphoses,â€ the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.
Ovidâ€™s â€œMetamorphosesâ€ is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.
The MAAB, an extension of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, is an advocacy group dedicated to ensuring that Columbiaâ€™s campus is welcoming and safe for students of all backgrounds. This year, we explored possible interventions in Core classrooms, where transgressions concerning student identities are common. Beyond the texts themselves, class discussions can disregard the impacts that the Western canon has had and continues to have on marginalized groups.
For example, another student who attended the forum shared that her Lit Hum professor gave her class the opportunity to choose their own text to add to their syllabus for the year. When she suggested the class read a Toni Morrison text, another student declared that texts by authors of the African Diaspora are a staple in most high school English classes, and therefore they did not need to reread them. Toni Morrison is a writer of both the African Diaspora and the Western world, and her novelsâ€”aside from being some of the most intellectually and emotionally compelling writing in the last centuryâ€”should be valued as founding texts of the Western canon.
The studentâ€™s remark regarding Toni Morrison was not merely insensitive, but also revealing of larger ideological divides. This would have been an opportune moment for the professor to intervene. …
Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities. The MAAB has been meeting with administration and faculty in the Center for the Core Curriculum to determine how to create such a space. The Board has recommended three measures: First, we proposed that the center issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students. Next, we noted that there should be a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors. Finally, the center should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.
All this is perfectly understandable. If you come from a disadvantaged background, you are bound to know plenty of women who were raped by some Olympian deity in the guise of a bull or a swan, and you undoubtedly have a sister who was forced to change into a laurel tree to avoid the embraces of Apollo. Those kinds of memories are painful!
Robert Tracinski argues that all the talk in contemporary universities controlled by the left about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” demonstrates the kind of alarm among herds of herbivores manifested in the immediate build up to an extinction event.
At the beginning of the year, I speculated that we may have reached â€œPeak Leftism,â€ the point at which the left has achieved such uniform control of the commanding heights of the culture that they have no place to go but down. Their mania for soft ideological conformity suggests a mechanism for this decline. They are growing so accustomed to living in an ideological â€œsafe spaceâ€ that they will no longer understand what it means to debate their positions, much less how to win the debate.
The most powerful historical precedent for this is the totalitarian creed of the Soviet Unionâ€”a dogma imposed, not just by campus censors or a Twitter mob, but by gulags and secret police. Yet one of the lessons of the Soviet collapse is that the ideological uniformity of a dictatorship seems totally solid and impenetrableâ€”right up to the moment it cracks apart. The imposition of dogma succeeds in getting everyone to mouth the right slogans, even as fewer and fewer of them understand or believe the ideology behind it.
This is the Paradox of Dogma. To return to the question we started with: if you try to shut down public debate, is this a way of ensuring that you winâ€”or an admission that you have already lost? The answer is: both. It might ensure that you win in the short term. But over the long term, it abandons the field to those who do believe in ideological debate.