If I had been violently raped yesterday and was looking for online help today, I wouldn’t want to read a post where someone else’s rape is meticulously described. It’s not a scenario I’m yet ready to relive through other’s words. Instead, I would only want to see posts that outline resources available to me as a victim of sexual assualt. It was from this sensitivity to victims’ needs that the trigger warning was born. You tag or start your article with the appropriate trigger warnings and I know “not today, this will trigger traumatic emotions.” It was a fantastic innovation. The trigger warning then traveled through the pipelines from crisis blogs, to feminist blogs, to tumblr posts, facebook posts, before finally landing in the college classroom. Once it got there, it took on new life and became a symbol of the coming-of-age of a new political correctness, at least in the eyes of authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.
In Lukianoff and Haidt’s article, The Coddling of the American Mind, and their program with goddess Diane Rehm, The New Political Correctness, they outline everything they see wrong with trigger warnings in the classroom and the cultural moment that produced it. In the article, they describe it as a movement “undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” Speaking specifically of trigger warnings, Haidt explains to goddess Diane Rehm “when it spreads into college campuses and you start putting warning labels on books and videos, not just because they have graphic, horrible violence, but because they express something that somebody might get upset about, you’re putting warning labels on ideas and you’re conveying a very, very dangerous idea.” As I understand their telling, the trigger warning has moved away from a means of helping victims work out violent memories in their own way, and instead has become an academic MPAA rating, as if we need to know if a class will be PG or R to maintain total peace of mind.
I haven’t yet come across this phenomenon too much in my own academic life. Some students will get mad if, in Religious Studies courses, you come across too dismissive of Christianity, but I haven’t seen them win that battle yet. However, keeping in mind that the authors are both cis white straight males, and that I myself am a cis white male, my only claim to otherness being gay, I can’t help but agree with the general direction of their thought.
One interesting case they cite is students at Columbia University requesting trigger warnings on Greek mythology for being too rapey. If the trigger warning is to become a standard of the university course, it must be made clear who the trigger warning is for. Again, the trigger warning came out of a need to protect women from traumatic memories that could be triggered by otherwise important conversations. In their article Haidt and Lukianoff employ some pseudo-pyschology to make that point that “helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.” Here, I depart from them. I am not a psychologist, I don’t feel comfortable telling someone dealing with emotional trauma to pull up their bootstraps and “read The Rape of Europa regardless of what your boyfriend did to you last night.”
That is a decision between them and their health care providers. I would hope that were I to assign the story of the Europa’s rape in class, students for whom that myth might trigger violent memories would be able to communicate to me that this book would adversely affect their mental health much more than it would aid their education. Maybe that hope is born out of a naiveté of my privilege. Regardless, for the average student who is simply uncomfortable with rape (and indeed I hope everyone is uncomfortable with rape) they must read the book, for it is only by facing rape and rape culture that we can address rape. Ignoring rape because it makes you uncomfortable will help no one. For a class on Greek mythology to be effective it must be R-rated.
We should also be mindful of the difference between endorsing rape and discussing rape. Reading about Zeus abducting Europa as a white bull and raping her is very different from saying Zeus did the right thing. Lukianoff also tells a story of a student in an ethnic studies class explaining and criticizing the term “wetback” and still getting in trouble just for using the word. In the same way teaching Greek mythology is different from endorsing rape, it should understood that calling a student a racial slur is worlds away from reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or better yet Native Son — novels which use racial slurs and engage with racial stereotypes. Calling a student a racial slur is not so much an exercise of free speech at all, but instead a verbal action meant to demean and humiliate an individual and their race. Those novels, however, are tools to address racial tension, white privilege, poverty, crime, and once again rape culture in America. As uncomfortable as reading those novels might at times make a student, addressing race is not the same violent act as calling a student a racial slur. The former is necessary, the latter deplorable.
College shouldn’t be traumatic. Trauma is bad. It damages well-being and impedes education. But college needs to make you uncomfortable. I like to say my role as an educator (or future educator more realistically) is to be a worldview destroyer. That’s my overly-metal way of saying that students should come out of the other side of college viewing the world differently, hopefully radically differently, than they did in high school. They need to be able to examine their assumptions, look at situations from multiple angles, and empathize with other groups and individuals in ways they never thought possible. This is best accomplished when Christians are faced with Buddhism, or atheists faced with the religiosity of Carl Sagan. Students need to account for Plato and Foucault, Rachel Maddow and Anne Coulter. Courses must face violence, ignorance, poverty as well as grace, knowledge, and beauty. Being confronted with a new world view is, of course, uncomfortable. However, it is from this discomfort that we achieve a fuller appreciation of our previous world view or else change and adopt new and better ways of thinking. Isn’t that a much better outcome to education than memorizing a few facts and producing harmless, status quo papers?
I’ll close with some John Waters: