My world is a dualistic place. Sometimes I am entirely surrounded by certain ideas, so much so that I can’t seem to get away from them — they appear on my news feeds, my email welcome page, the bulletin board at work, the radio, the newspaper, the TV. And yet when I venture out into human interaction, usually the first five people I meet say, “Oh, I didn’t hear about that.”
Part of that is the way I live now. When I was employed by software development firms, I spent eight to ten hours a day with the same people in small confines drinking coffee and talking about anything to distract ourselves from the mechanistic, even mathematical, work we were doing. In such an atmosphere there was nothing I could have heard about that would have escaped the notice of those seven or so other people, so we lived in a kind of informed bubble — lots of stuff got in, and then we bounced it around for weeks or until the next thing came along. Academia is different. My work is nothing close to mechanical, now. It’s thinking work, and my brain can quite easily remain fully occupied without even worrying about what’s trending in the blogosphere/twitter zone/New York Post. Similarly, my students are also fully occupied, as they should be, because in addition to my class they’re probably taking four others and believe me I want their attention focused on that. Anybody else, I only see sporadically so I have no way of knowing what’s “trending” in their particular spheres.
This is a phenomenon both good and bad, for me. It’s good because when I step away from the news feeds and bump into people in the Shop-Rite or the hallway, I can be diverted from the obsessive brooding over facts and opinions and logical fallacies and instead tell funny stories about bunnies in the backyard or recommend a good mechanic. It’s bad because I begin to doubt my own reality. Surely, I didn’t just dream those thirteen pages of articles, comments, op-eds and letters I downloaded from the Times website. They were real, and from all evidence quite in earnest, at least judging by the intensity of the writing. People — somewhere, though maybe not in the Shop-Rite — are giving serious thought and occasionally deep emotional investment to these issues. I’m just not sure who they are or where they are or why I never meet them.
The simple answer is, the various “spheres” (blog, Facebook, letters to the editor, comments forums) are magnifications. The written word looms large and lasting, more so than office gossip or shared anecdotes. It’s possible to read thirteen pages of text and come away convinced that this issue is THE single most important idea on the planet right now, when it’s really one small thing that is one small part of the lives of a small segment of the population who just happened to take time to post a comment, dash a letter to the editor, register an indignant tweet. It’s not that important, really. I Should Just Not Worry About It. No one else is.
Then I get scared. That sounds dangerously close to complacency, to intellectual stultification, to living with the blinders on. If anyone on this planet has a responsibility to assess the ideas of the moment, it’s me, because I’m going to be teaching people tomorrow. And I can’t get away with avoiding a controversy or overlooking a logical abomination simply because nobody in the Shop-Rite knows it exists. I just wish I could gain the right focal distance; not too remote, not too obsessed. I can’t.
So this week’s obsession is the issue arising from the proposal made by Bailey Loverin, a UC Berkeley student, that college syllabi contain “trigger warnings” when material to be covered might reasonably trigger “an instant reliving of one’s trauma” (Smith). Empirically, this is not controversial: not many would argue with the simple statement, “A veteran with PTSD might experience traumatic flashbacks when reading a graphic depiction of combat” and note I mean graphic in its least connotative, most literal sense — the words paint a picture. Sorry, folks, “graphic” does not mean either “disturbing” (we use the word “disturbing” for that) or “unnecessary” (we call that “gratuitous”; look it up). So the question is not whether it could occur. Nevertheless, at least three of the letters/comments I have read have argued that very point — two suggesting that it’s inane to believe that words on a page can trigger emotional responses, and one insinuating that while of course words on a page can do that, naturally there will be jerks out there who will think that it can’t. Notice: this last writer was not responding to the two previous writers. They were all responding to the same New York Times piece (Medina, May 17, 2014).
Another implication coursing through the articles and responses like a seductive serpent: college students “today” (so, not us, not my generation, but only that rapidly-deteriorating product of the next generation) are (and I quote) “fainthearted,” “sensitive,” and “fragile.” These writers, reading an article about a proposal to reduce traumatic triggers, have made the assumptions that students want to avoid being “uncomfortable” or “offended.” They probably got that impression because the Medina piece is not strict reportage of Loverin’s proposal. Even its title automatically wraps the trauma-trigger discussion in the language of discomfort (“Squirm”), and at least two people unrelated to UC Berkeley are quoted in the article discussing “comfort” and whether or not it is crazy (they say it is, of course) to try to protect students from the very humanistic, if potentially challenging, ideas they are supposed to be learning. (Quote from a letter to the NYT editor: “These powerful works connected me to the world…what exactly are [students of today] seeking at a university?”) However, even I could tell, and I’m not all that sharp these days, that Loverin didn’t ask for comfort. I think she was asking that professors take one extra step in avoiding a potential emotional issue that most agree could occur.
Now, if as a professor you want to argue (as some did) that most of us usually take that step anyway, that’s fine. I know I do. I teach Comparative Religion in a county so red no one even buys the blue ink cartridge for the printer, for crying out loud. I start the whole darned semester apologizing in advance for casting any doubts on their Christianity and assuring them that learning about another religion is NOT endorsing it, blah, blah. But just because some or even many of us already do this does not mean that Ms. Loverin should be ridiculed for bringing up something obvious — I do not agree with one letter-writer who called voluntary trigger warnings “just common sense and common decency.” I think it’s good, thoughtful behavior and well-considered decency…the way he says it makes it sound like that if any of us hadn’t thought of it before reading this article we’d be insensitive dolts and bad at our jobs, because it’s just so common-sense. I’m glad that I have done it in the past but I wouldn’t beat up anyone who hadn’t before hearing about this issue. I’d be glad some thoughtful decency had been stirred up. Does that mean that I think it needs to be policy? No, but only because policy has the potential to be fear-inducing, and fearful educated people tend to be angry educated people. We’d have many pissed-off professors, and just my luck they’ll be making circular arguments and undistributed-middle syllogisms left and right (pun intended) in strident tones, and I’d be reading them and sputtering, “But, but, I agree with you BUT” and nobody except the dog would be listening and of course nobody in the Shop-Rite even knows that this is an issue, and I don’t want to explain it for half an hour while the frozen yogurt gets all melty in my cart.
They’d be — they already are — fearful for their academic freedom. So comes the third theme to wind through this material: OH MY GOD CENSORSHIP. The equation is simple but slippery: Trauma -> Trigger -> Warning -> Labels -> Dictating What We Teach. Again, Loverin didn’t suggest that but the faculty quoted in Medina’s article sure smelled it. This permitted various commenters and letter-writers to build that strawman up nice and pretty, ready for knocking down: We Must Not Tolerate Paths That Lead To Censorship. Did anyone ask you to? Really, or do you just like thinking they did so you can be outraged?
No, I’m sorry, I was talking to myself, not to you. Excuse me for blocking the frozen broccoli.
Another strawman: a letter writer, college professor, speaks of “the mistaken premise that seems to underlie the warnings: that literature is meant largely to be comforting, and not to upset us.” It’s one thing to argue with a mistaken premise. It’s something else entirely to assume that the premise exists because it “seems to underlie” the actions. So I ask the frozen pizza, “I didn’t hear anybody suggesting that they thought literature was supposed to be comforting; did you? I mean, if they did I would fight with them, but did anybody actually say that?” Curse you, Red Baron. You have no answer.
So guess what, partisans? I can manage to disagree with everybody in this debate, even those who think that they are CLEARLY in sensible opposition to one another. You’re both wrong. You’re all fighting arguments nobody made and protecting rights nobody’s violated and afraid of censorship nobody suggested; you’re casting aspersions on young people because they’re not you, you’re overlooking the reality of trauma and at the same time being hypersensitive to hypersensitivity; you’re all ready to roll down the slippery slope of Left or Right (Left: “Whee! Let’s also identify potential ‘racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism,’ and while we’re at it slaughter all evil!” Right: “Look at us go tumbling down towards the land where the ‘lily-livered seek out colleges where easily intimidated faculty will coddle them,’ you bunch of entitled ideologues.”)
I’m a little impatient with this discussion. But not the same way everybody who’s in it seems to be. They have met the enemy, and so forth. I’m watching people swat at invisible flies and I can’t find anybody real or solid enough to tell. And what would I say? “This issue is so unimportant that it’s really important.”
And they’ll say, “What issue? Bug spray, aisle eight.”
Medina, Jennifer. “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.” The New York Times, May 17, 2014 Web.
“Offer a Caveat Lector?” Letters to the Editor. The New York Times, May 24, 2014. Web.
Smith, Russell. “The Trigger-warning is About Decency.” The Globe and Mail (Ontario Ed.) May 23, 2014. Web.
p.s. Next week: “Kant, or Won’t?” I don’t know if I’ll actually write that but I HAD to use the title somehow.