So many questions...
Is truth-telling not inherently a practice which is dependent on discomfort?
Some on the "left", as well as those others who count themselves among "progressives", are at risk of becoming the very parodies and caricatures that conservatives mock and imagine them to be.
The New York Times' piece on "trigger warnings" offers up a troubling picture of "political correctness" run amok at some colleges and universities:
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Should students about to read “The Great Gatsby” be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart” — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?
Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.
The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University,the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools.
In a college and university educational environment where learning has become secondary to pleasing the customer as measured by inaccurate and disingenuous student evaluations, the increasingly ubiquitous trigger warning threatens to stifle learning in the interest of preserving the (emotional and often narcissistic) peace.
The Times continues:
Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin’s associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the guide was meant to provide suggestions, not to dictate to professors. An associate professor of comparative American studies and a co-chairwoman of the task force, Ms. Raimondo said providing students with warnings would simply be “responsible pedagogical practice.”
“I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up,’ ” she said. “That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with. We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously.”
But Marc Blecher, a professor of politics and East Asian studies at Oberlin and a major critic of trigger warnings at Oberlin, said such a policy would have a chilling effect on faculty members, particularly those without the job security of tenure.
“If I were a junior faculty member looking at this while putting my syllabus together, I’d be terrified,” Mr. Blecher said. “Any student who felt triggered by something that happened in class could file a complaint with the various procedures and judicial boards, and create a very tortuous process for anyone.”The classroom ought to be a space of mutual respect where students are taught to dialogue with one another and the instructor in the pursuit of empirical and philosophical Truth. We should also be mindful of the various experiences that all of us bring to a given learning space. On practical grounds this raises some questions and challenges. Do we teach to the weakest or the strongest in the room? Should instructors teach to the "median" student with the hope that the best students are not too bored and the weakest students not discouraged?
And how do those of us who teach "sensitive subjects" (this is a term I have become increasingly familiar with--and one that I think is pretty damn accurate--in the post civil rights era, neoliberal classroom where "diversity" and "multiculturalism" are dealt with as obligations and obligatory requirements and hurdles, akin to getting one's drivers license when a teenager, as opposed to rigorous and potentially transformative topics embedded within serious and established fields of study) perform that balancing act?
I, like many of you who work in higher education, have witnessed how the best intentions which led to "trigger warnings" (in the classroom and online) can do a disservice to students' (and the general public's) emotional and intellectual growth. Instead of dealing with challenging speech, I have seen students retreat to specially prepared "safe rooms". Challenging speakers and guests are not approached on their own terms; rather, they are judged to be dangerous and uncomfortable for the university community, the mere presence of the former is a threat to the "learning community".
This move to protect students from "discomfort" is part of a larger phenomenon.
Modern, Western, "First World" society, is typified by the many ways that the state shields its members from "unpleasantness" and "filth".
For example, death has been taken out of the home and is now handled by funeral homes and the mortician. We go to supermarkets to buy our meat so that the industrialized killing that produces it can be separated from the end result, i.e. our meal. The United States' military apparatus of the United States kills people everyday, and its own soldiers suffer, in order to secure resources under the lying banner of "democracy" and "freedom"--what is really wasteful consumerism in which capitalism and democracy are made the same thing--and the American people are shielded from both the process and the outcome of Imperial Violence. Thus, when blowback arrives, they look on like ignoramuses, complicit in their own suffering, mouths agape, asking "why do they hate us so?" "Why do they hate our way of life and our freedoms?" as the towers fall.
For those individuals who are willing to agree to basic principles of good governance and comportment, civil society should be based on mutual respect among its members. Trigger warnings, when taken to extremes, threaten to be devices of censorship which circumvent the difficult conversations and discomfort that are necessary for citizens to fight and advocate for the Good Society in a proper (communicative) democracy.
Schools are where citizens are socialized into a society's norms and values.
Subsequently, what type of students are being created when difficult conversations are prefaced by a "warning", and then said students can then find a way to remove themselves from that unpleasant interaction?
And are so-called liberals and progressives aware that they are giving conservatives, especially racist reactionary white conservatives, a loaded gun that will inevitably pointed at their foes with the defense that "talking about racism and white privilege makes me upset or uncomfortable and I don't want to be in this class!"
Or in the worst case scenario, what will liberals and progressives do when conservatives, being far better organized on the collegiate level than their peers, conspire to use "trigger warnings" as a way of bullying faculty who they have targeted for dismissal in a moment where too many administrators are cowards, mere cogs in the corporate university?