A Lame Defense of Trigger Warnings and Micro-Aggression Mania

Many American campuses are caught up in a great new utopian project – protecting students from speech, writings, images, or anything else that they might find upsetting. Because of the spreading mania for trigger warnings and “protecting” students from micro-aggressions, schools are moving away from their focus on education – which, after all, almost inevitably upsets some students by challenging their beliefs. As Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote in his superb book The State of the American Mind, students often enter college today with an expectation that what they’ll get is confirmation of their existing beliefs.

Unfortunately, some higher-education leaders are going along with those expectations, trying to make their schools into blissful oases where young people never have to deal with upsetting people or ideas.

In an op-ed published in the August 31, 2015 Los Angeles Times, Barry Glassner (president of Lewis and Clark College) and Morton Shapiro (president of Northwestern University) admonish us, “Baby Boomers, Don’t be so Quick to Mock Colleges on Trigger Warnings and ‘Micro-aggressions.’”

Because, say Glassner and Shapiro, college leaders have only good intentions and are merely trying to create safe, welcoming learning environments for all students. They acknowledge that there have been “easy targets” for critics, such as the protest at Oberlin College against allowing dissident feminist Christina Hoff Sommers speak on campus lest she offend some students who call her a “rape denier.”

But it would be wrong to throw out their “protect the students” baby with such bathwater since, they write, “Wholesale denouncements of young people’s concerns only hinder our efforts to do right by our students.”

Glassner and Shapiro proceed to tell us, “Many students have genuine concerns that deserve to be taken seriously,” which may well be true. It would be far better, however, to deal with such cases individually rather than throwing a wet blanket over free speech on campus.

Here’s the example the authors give. “One of us watched a brilliant young African American woman who had been highly engaged on campus and in her course work an ‘A’ student, recoil from her classes and her classmates after returning to her dormitory one afternoon. There she was confronted with racist slurs scrawled on posters she had put up….”

Does that case and similar ones that occasionally happen (and keep in mind that lots of them have turned out to be hoaxes) call for a school-wide assault on verbal slights (microaggressions)? I don’t think so, but if a school were to embark upon one, would it do any good? People who intend to inflict harm on others won’t be deterred from doing so just because the school tells them that they should be careful not to hurt other students’ feelings.

And trying to stop all of the inadvertent personal slights that we all encounter in daily living is an impossibility. As Megan McArdle observes in her piece, “How Grown-Ups Deal with ‘Microaggressions’” in any diverse group of people, “microagressions are unavoidable. A culture that tries to avoid them is setting itself up to tear itself apart.”

She goes on to explain that once we start down the path of policing microaggressions, we make “impossible demands on members of the ever-shrinking majority: to know everything about every possible victim group, to never inadvertently appropriate any part of any culture in ways a member doesn’t like, or misunderstand something, or make an innocent remark that reads differently to someone with a different experience. Which will, of course, only hasten the scramble for members of the majority to gain themselves some sort of victim status that can protect them from sanction.”

Thus, like nearly all well-intentioned liberal projects, the prevention of microaggressions does scant good, but opens up a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences.

What about trigger warnings? Does that part of the Cocoon Trend fare better?

Glassner and Shapiro write that a student recovering from sexual abuse really could be traumatized by a class reading or discussion. No doubt, that is possible. Again, however, it would make far more sense for such a vulnerable student to bring her concerns to the professor’s attention rather than to institute a general policy requiring trigger warnings for every possible idea or image that might cause any student in class mental distress.

Glassner and Shapiro want to exonerate the students who push for a campus where they’re “safe” from hurtful words, writing, “Today’s college students would not be struggling to deal with sexual assault and racism from their childhoods and on our campuses had their parents and grandparents made the world as harmonious as we imagined we would.”

No, that’s not the problem at all. The world actually is much more harmonious than in the past, just not perfectly so. But while doing much to improve civilization, those older generations also sowed some bad ideas that have taken root among many young Americans. In particular, I’d point to the “progressive” notion that it’s the responsibility of “society” (government and institutions like colleges) to solve the individual’s problems for him. Progressives have been peddling that for more than a century. That’s what the Nanny State is all about.

It has led some students to believe that there’s virtue in claiming victim status so they can complain to authorities when someone acts in a way they dislike. And it has led others to realize that they can aggressively take advantage of that status to censor ideas they don’t agree with. The protests against speakers like Christina Hoff Sommers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others stem not from concerns that their words will cause psychological harm, but simply from the fact that they’re saying things that the students don’t want anyone to hear.

The silk of the supposedly protective cocoon is easily spun into a gag by those who think it’s proper to silence all who disagree with them.

Far from deserving praise for their efforts at protecting students with genuine concerns, college leaders like Glassner and Shapiro should be criticized for not seeing how they are encouraging bad habits among young Americans who, more than anything else, need to grow up.


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