Monday, August 29, 2016

Trigger Warnings and Campus Free Speech

As a dedicated liberal, proponent of free speech, and one concerned with the emotional as well as the intellectual well being of young people, I support the U. of Chicago's recent letter to incoming freshman, informing them that the university does not officially support trigger warnings or limits on free speech on its campus. Limits on free speech on campus are a mistake. Ugly ideas don't last because they're spoken. They last because they go un debated. Limits on free speech are also a cover for ugly ideas (especially antisemitism, ever popular on both the left and right.)

I also do avidly support dedicating resources to empowering students through support groups and promoting social understanding, even if I don't support furthering the entrenchment of 'identity politics,' which Balkanizes both the academy and our culture at large. This means that I believe that 'safe spaces' and 'trigger warnings' have a real place--e.g., students who feel marginalized or vulnerable deserve to be seen and heard by those whom they trust, and to find respite from haters, in times and places set aside for those purposes--but not where they've been over-extended in ways that impinge on free speech in the classroom or public arena. As a teacher, I would use what people call 'trigger warnings,' but perhaps not in every instance in which some students would be offended, on principle, by their absence, and I'd pushback on a MANDATE to use them. Long before we called prefatory remarks on hard subjects 'trigger warnings' (a useful phrase) we made them, out of consideration for the inexperienced, or the young, or the vulnerable. Such consideration--formally called a 'trigger warning' or not--is indeed part of good teaching. My objection is that mandating and defining trigger warnings in the classroom does a disservice to students, leading them possibly to believe they may crumble into dust, if somehow a trigger warning has gone unspoken. I would NEVER show images of the Holocaust or present-day Syria, or discuss lynchings or rape, without extensive prefatory comment, but I would also never tolerate being indicted by classroom observers if reference to such things cropped up, without warning, in the course of discussion. I see real abuse in embracing formal requirements for 'trigger warnings.' Trigger warnings are NOT in themselves censorship (I agree with proponents on this) but MANDATED trigger warnings are a lever for it.

Finally, I do not believe that exercising one's unlimited right to free speech is always appropriate and is, in some private and social settings, exceedingly unkind. Does one have a right to it? Sure. But should the elderly lady on the metro have to listen to teenagers curse loudly between stops, as I recently witnessed? I'm fascinated that we seem not only to be debating free speech and (mandated) trigger warnings but also that we're apparently struggling to articulate what constitutes civil interpersonal behavior. Have we devolved into such an atomized social reality that we can't separate 'being polite' or 'respectful' from infringement on our own civil rights? And yet, are we so delicate that we fear that strong disagreement from others will dissolve our own selfhood? Should we insist on exercising the right to be the loudest voice in the room whenever we want, while also insisting that we're being unfairly hurt, if anyone else raises their voice? Do we not think still that sometimes it's as useful to listen as to speak?

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