When “Oh, Grow Up!”, “That’s Ridiculous” and “You Need Help” Are Appropriate Responses

Oops...I forgot the trigger warning...

Oops…I forgot the trigger warning…

Columbia University’s descent into madness continues.

Columbia University’s student newspaper recently featured four members of the school’s student Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board demanding that professors consider their students’ delicate sensibilites when teaching intense, violent or otherwise provocative material. This will give you a flavor of what the students advocate:

“Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” 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…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.”

I take a lot of criticism on the blog for not expressing false respect when someone espouses a position that is cultural cyanide, or, in some cases, just plain stupid. This argument by the Columbia students would qualify. Some affirmatively bad ideas should not be pampered, mollycoddled or treated as if they deserve sustained attention and debate. It just encourages them. Long ago I feared that the multi-culturalism and diversity movements would run amuck, and indeed they have. Being literate,respectful and tolerant, as well as open-minded, toward other cultures is healthy and essentially American. Nevertheless, nations, societies and communities require a consistent culture, as well as the cultural values that a dominant culture contains. Ethics, among other critical features of a healthy society, is impossible without this, and chaos is inevitable.

Education, and the process of strengthening young minds in their ability to keep expanding, evolving, analyzing and learning, demands exposure to a full range of art, history, traditions, expressions and ideas. The belief that one must be insured  against incursions from any ideas, stories, images or expression that might be emotionally intense, shocking or upsetting is a form of censorship, as if students in their teens and 20’s have any standing to pronounce what is or isn’t going to be useful and stimulating for them to learn. The Columbia Spectator article is a manifesto for a lot of damaging values and processes: restriction of knowledge, pre-judging new concepts, restriction of influences, ossification of ideologies, the inability to control emotions, weenyism, and more.

I know there are reasons for such silly student posturing. Among them is the crippling cost of education, which suggests that students, as consumers, should be able to dictate the product and service. Good theory, but wrong: students don’t know enough to know what they need to see, read, think about and analyze to reach their full potential. There is no difference between a woman demanding she must be shielded from material depicting violence to women, a Native American refusing to watch “Stagecoach”: in a film class, and a conservative Christian insisting that the theories of Charles Darwin are so shattering to his world view that he should not be exposed to them. A proper institutional response to all three assertions is “That’s ridiculous.”

Trigger warnings have no legitimacy  in education or the marketplace of ideas. One of the vital life skills one needs to learn in college, if somehow it has eluded you before, is how to process new information without becoming incapacitated by emotional reactions.  Those who suggest otherwise are simply wrong—there is such a thing as clear-cut wrong, you know—and should be told this by their wiser elders without ambiguity or excessive gentleness. “You need to grow up,” “I don’t know where you got such an idea, but it’s absurd,” or “I think you need to see someone” may be appropriate, and the astute use of these and other phrases that serve as a dousing of metaphorical ice water can be the verbal equivalent of the stitch in time that can save nine.  A sharp, “You are talking like an idiot” may stop someone from becoming an idiot, or making idiots of others. Enabling censoriousness and weenyism is a breach of duty. Writes Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown:

“Apparently this discussion of Ovid was so threatening it was a matter of self-preservation to ignore it. If that’s really true—if the mere discussion of rape causes this student to feel panicked and physically unsafe—then she needs help treating severe post-traumatic stress disorder, not a fucking trigger warning. I say that with no judgment; being raped can obviously be traumatic enough to produce lingering psychological trauma. But that’s what that level of reaction represents: psychological trauma. Which, while something professors should be sensitive to, shouldn’t dictate the parameters of acceptable education for all students.”

Of course.  And we should not pretend that it is rational or reasonable to assert otherwise, even if it means telling too-sensitive students to grow up, and to stop being ridiculous.

UPDATE: It’s a little more than an hour after I posted this,  and now I find that Peggy Noonan has column out on the same topic, inspired by the same source. You can read it here.

23 thoughts on “When “Oh, Grow Up!”, “That’s Ridiculous” and “You Need Help” Are Appropriate Responses

  1. Word for word, I nearly wrote what Ms. Brown said. To poke deeper, the accommodations that the “Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board” could only be appropriate on a very limited, case-by-case basis (as indeed, they already are).

    Forcing a combat veteran with PTSD to watch Saving Private Ryan unabridged at the risk of failure for instance, might just be cruel. A reasonable accommodation would be to allow the student to skip the battle scenes, or to silently duck out during lecture, if necessary. He might loose points for missing certain plot development, but that is the trade off.

    However, it would be demeaning to veterans (or to women, or to minorities) to blanketly assume they are too delicate to handle the material, and need expensive, extensive anonymous support structures to avoid ever being put into a position to be exposed to incidental material. In the veteran’s case above, the “accommodation” could be spontaneous (sits in back and leaves if the gore starts to trouble him), or he could go through existing channels to document the PTSD with the school, and formally be accommodated (such as having the option of a screening the film at home, or using an abridged versions).

    The difference between the existing mechanisms, and the “Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board’s” recommendations is that the student must show his or her face and ask for the accommodation needed. This is a basic, grown up skill that must be learned to function productively in society with any sort of disability. Depending on the severity, it may mean that some doors are closed; it is not reasonable to deny an experience/class/job opportunity to the majority because a small minority cannot participate.

  2. As a graduate of this once-great institution, I take personal interest.

    When I first started hearing about this trigger stuff, I honestly thought it was a joke, a right-wing Onion-type parody. After realizing the right wing is generally lacking in such powers of irony, I was forced to face the ugly truth – this crazy stuff is out there. Worse, it’s lurking in the same classrooms I used to attend.

    Ms. Brown’s response is quite right; the shame is that one should even have to find words to articulate her observation. It ought to be gut-level obvious.

    This is just pathetic beyond belief.

    • I first heard of trigger warnings in the UK in 2001. I took a day trip to Portsmouth to check out HMS Victory and the D-Day tapestry, and also looked at the public areas of the Royal Navy base there. As an introduction/promotion they had a half-hour dramatic film in which a family is kidnapped from a yacht by terrorists and, of course, the Royal Navy swings into action to rescue them. Before you entered the auditorium there was a sign warning that the film contained “physical violence, firearm discharge, loud explosions, scenes of children in danger, terrorism,” and sundry other things. This might have been appropriate pitched as a cautionary message to parents, since obviously kids might be shaken up by this stuff, but it was pitched at the general audience, lest your delicate sensibilities be offended. I just sneered and said on with the show, but now this stuff is the norm.

      • I take no issue with a passive warning that a film is violent. Why shouldn’t people have a right to know the contents of what they are about to watch?

        Passive notifications impede no one, and are of mild use to some. Similar to putting nutrition facts on pork rinds – won’t stop someone from eating them, but of mild use to the ignorant…

        • I agree, though, that this admittedly reasonable requirement was the slippery slope that led to the argument that similar warnings needed to be everywhere, on everything.

  3. This “Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board”, made up of students who have about as much knowledge of how the world works as my cat does, is a dumb idea from the get-go. Why are students, who as a general rule are ambulatory vacuum tubes, allowed to assume that they can “advise” anybody, let alone adult professors and administrators? I remember clearly my academic life, which was split into two parts: one immediately after high school and the second after a stint in the Army and a few years actually supporting myself and my wife (now ex). It still amazes me how stupid those 18-19 year-old Freshmen became after those intervening years…or maybe a dose of real-life made me smarter. Ya’ think?

  4. A modest proposal: Let’s have all these lefties put into a few school and call them the “Safe Place League” or something. they can offer nothing but non-stop women’s studies and Social Justice and community organizing courses, etc. No Humanities, nothing by dead white guys, no sciences or economics or history. Nothing upsetting. Only confirming courses. Nothing in any way offensive. Graduates could all work in administration at the schools. Tuition would be free to all. Noam Chomsky could be commissioner of their sports league. By the way, did you see Noam was one of Osama bin Laden’s favorite authors? Thanks Noam and thank you MIT.

    • Nom Chomsky can give as good as he gets. I find it hard to imagine him being in sympathy with the drivel that Jack has pointed us to here.

      • I think Noam’s being an ill-tempered, contrarian crackpot would more than qualify him for any number of posts in the Safe Place League or its member institutions.

  5. Students should feel safe? From what? Physical harm? Sure. But safe from having worldviews shattered by unpleasant information? College should be the opposite of that. College shouldn’t be safe places.

    I had to read “Candide” in high school lit class. Didn’t like it. I found it unfunny. I found the content offensive. I still read it, though. To my knowledge, it didn’t scar my psyche at all. Was Generation X the last one that allowed itself to read things that weren’t packaged in a glossy PC cover?

    As a WWII buff to this day, I read a lot of books and watch a lot of documentaries about the period. In some of these sources, atrocities committed by various armies against civilians come up, including the mass rapes in China, the Soviet Union, Poland and, later, in Germany as the Red Army warpathed its way to Berlin. Do the accounts of little girls and elderly women being sexually assaulted make me uncomfortable as hell? You bet. If anything it makes my husband even more upset. But pretending those things didn’t happen isn’t honest and sanitizes the reality of war. So I read, watch and listen anyway.

    Whether dealing with history, science, literature or art, you can choose to isolate yourself from awkward subjects. But you’ll find that its a losing proposition to avoid them for life and you’ll end up the worse for it anyway.

    Young people don’t always understand that, but they shouldn’t be discouraged from learning how life is versus how they wish it to be.

  6. I’ve always taken Jack’s “Kaboom” as a trigger warning. Jack, perhaps you should have issued a “Kaboom” regarding the article in the school newspaper written by Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board?

  7. When I was in high school in the ’90s back in México we had an Contemporary English Lit class (not exactly, but close enough for an Internet comment). The instructor was the stereotypical American in his early 30s: blond, blue-eyes, recently graduated from his Master’s, idealistic, and fucking smart.

    We were to read Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez. This is a complicated, sometimes crude, sometimes sophisticated, autobiography of a Mexican American intellectual growing up in California, dealing with alienation from his culture as he adapts to the local environment, rejection from Americans for his heritage and a complex relationship with Affirmative Action. This book was *very* polarizing, students debated, shouted and I vaguely remember tears in at least one of the discussions. In the end I think we all found it incredibly valuable even if we disagreed with some of the guy’s premises.

    When I read stuff like this I wonder what would happen to a guy like Kevin (the instructor) in today’s college world. Probably get fired for promoting a hostile classroom environment or something stupid like that. Makes me really sad…

  8. Here’s what I can’t figure out:

    When I was growing up there was virtually no sex in movies or on TV. “Violence” in a movie often consisted of a single gunshot when the detective finally got the bad guy. On the radio we never heard any fart jokes or bathroom humor, that seems popular today. And four-letter words? Forget about it.

    But while movies, TV, and radio were tame by today’s standards, the people were tough. They went through the depression and WWII. They lived in a time when tuberculosis and polio were real health risks. They stayed together for decades in unhappy marriages. They existed without much of what we call the “safety net.” (My father had to drop out of school at age 15 to help support the family after his father, a prison guard, was murdered in a prison breakout. No “workers compensation” in those days.)

    Today radio, TV, and movies are very different. Sex is everywhere. In a war movie you expect to see amputations and intestines. On TV and in movies everyone has grenades, flame throwers, and automatic weapons. Four-letter words are routine.

    But while the media have become very coarse, somehow college students have become pussies, afraid that some poem will push them over the edge. They watch beheadings on Game of Thrones, and then refuse to read a Mark Twain novel for fear of being offended.

    I don’t get it.

    • It’s market capitalism. They see various victim classes—and I am NOT in any way minimizing their legitimate burdens, injustices and grievances—appear to get special privileges, sympathy, a thumb on the scales—and it creates a market for complaints and asserted victim status.I think this is at the core of the culture wars, and the most dangerous aspect—and an unintended consequence—of public policy so frequently based on care, compassion, and sympathy.

    • Yeah, there’s got to be a huge overlap of the list of offended students and movies, tv, and books like GoT that are far more visceral and triggering than a dry text or lecture. How can you study bad issues and their representation in past or presnet if you censor it? I’m adult enough to bow out (or fake it) if I hit a triggering topic. If they pride themselves on multiculturism, sure they know there is a large continuum of these behaviors around the world even now? Playing ostrich only amuses the gawkers but should NOT earn them credits. They are in school to learn, not hide their faces like a kid that doesn’t like spinach.

  9. Trigger Warnings (do not vomit on your keyboard): Our world’s past is bowdlerizing; criticism is in peril; censorship on the horizon, free speech down the drain and free thought following close behind. The Age of the Selfish, Spineless, Pseudo-Sensitive Imbecile is upon us. It makes me really really sick.

    Gee, was that overboard?

  10. On a cooler-headed note: I am in complete agreement with your thesis. But not with your idea of trying to change the behavior, much less the mind, of a teen-to-20s person by telling (them they are) (him or her that he or she is) ridiculous or idiotic or need(s) psychiatric help. Unless – third-person pronouns aside – you are one’s personal uber-guru with much time to reason one-on-one, the reaction will likely be deeper entrenchment , heightened “sensitivity,” and increased alienation from, if not contempt for, real adults.

    … until many many years later …

    • Well, I wasn’t suggesting that those statements would be the entire substance of the discussion, but rather the introduction. As opposed to, you know, “Poor thing! I’m so sorry! Please make sure you help me change!”

  11. It seems that the colleges and their alleged students are deeply mired in the concept of catering to what we used to call a third world mentality. In other words, defiance and bombast as a means of compensating for the fact that their “culture” is crap and has likely always been. This also refers to American subcultures and the pop culture. Culture itself is a badly abused word! Of course, when you convene some student panel on “multi-culturalism”, you’re practically begging for this sort of long winded idiocy. Columbia University would serve a better purpose if they just fenced it off and let its worthless denizens fend for themselves.

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