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On the University of Chicago’s Letter to Students Prospective Donors

[ 248 ] August 28, 2016 |

TriggerWarning-Link

The University of Chicago has issued a letter coming out against BIG POLITICALLY CORRECT. I think DeLong is right to subject it to “a hermeneutics of derp:”

It seems to me more likely than not that John Ellison is not talking to his future students here. It seems to me that he is more likely than not to be talking to those of their parents who spend an unhealthy amount of time glued to and being traumatized by Fox News. And he is doing so in the hope that those parents will send more students to U. of C. It’s a marketing ploy–not part of an orientation for new students.

[…]

But, Jesse, surely John Ellison can find a way to say “we welcome the contributions to the intellectual life of the college of Donald Trump supporters” that doesn’t also carry the very strong implication that Hillel and the Newman Center are in some sense illegitimate?

As I said, this is a very charitable reading he is engaging in here.

As I see it, a university is:

*first of all, a safe space for ideas.

*second, a safe place for scholars.

Those two imperatives do not forbid but rather mandate trigger warnings, whenever they are helpful in aiding the members of the University and scholars to grapple and process with difficult ideas or shocking facts.

Those two imperatives also require all members of the university to treat one another with respect–to avoid giving even a hint that other members do not belong or do not have rights or are not secure in their persons.

And these two imperatives require that sub-communities within the university have spaces that are safe–in which discussion can proceed accepting for the moment the premises of the sub-community.

I’ve never understood the argument that trigger warnings are some kind of inherent threat to free speech on campus and I still don’t. If you’re applauding the actions of Chicago’s administration, it sure can’t be because of academic freedom.

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    • Platypus Prime

      I lost all respect for Myers a few years ago, when he started promoting his “Atheism+” campaign by accusing any and all atheists who didn’t jump on the bandwagon of being assholes. Not exactly a great debate technique…

      • cpinva

        please provide cites.

        • Platypus Prime

          Here you go: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/08/27/following-up-on-last-nights-atheism-discussion/

          The part where he calls everyone who disagrees with his new platform an asshole is at the very end:

          If you agree with that, you’re an atheist+. Or a secular humanist. Whatever. You’re someone who cares about the world outside the comforting glow of your computer screen. It really isn’t a movement about exclusion, but about recognizing the impact of the real nature of the universe on human affairs.

          And if you don’t agree with any of that — and this is the only ‘divisive’ part — then you’re an asshole. I suggest you form your own label, “Asshole Atheists” and own it, proudly. I promise not to resent it or cry about joining it.

          Unsurprisingly, the “Atheism+” movement went nowhere fast after that sort of inclusive argument… Ergo my deep suspicion concerning everything Myers has to say about anything. It’s not uncommon, really, for people to pretend to be experts outside their field: Adams is an okay cartoonist, but a horrible human being; Dawkins is a great biologist, but apparently stuck in the 19th century when it comes to social progress; Myers is a tenured biologist, but apparently with quite a few unresolved issues.

          • cpinva

            ok, thanks. i only just became aware of his blog a couple of years ago, and have never seen him make any assertion of that nature, which is why i asked.

            “Myers is a tenured biologist, but apparently with quite a few unresolved issues.”

            i doubt that makes him unique, i suspect all of us have some “unresolved” issues.

          • cpinva

            ok, i read the whole thing. i have to tell you, i didn’t find it offensive, considering what came before it. on the subject of the Atheist+ movement going nowhere, he even said it might not, so i doubt he went into mourning when it didn’t. on the other hand, he was kind enough to give the Asshole Atheist’s a cool logo: Atheists* well, ok not that cool, but he is a biologist after all, not a graphics artist.

            but, to each his own.

            • Platypus Prime

              It was years ago, and I hadn’t thought of him at all until I saw him mentioned above. The quoted post was one in a series. He’d previously constructed a pretty shaky argument along the lines of “if there’s no afterlife, we should all become selfless humanists and do this, this, this and this because just think of the implications, people!”

              While I’m a supporter of equality and progress in all things, I (and many others) didn’t feel like becoming a secular version of Jimmy Carter – and thought PZ’s thesis (“think of the implications!”) could be used for any number of conclusions.

              FWIW, I think John Scalzi’s response to the U of C letter was pretty spot-on and brilliant. He’s an alumnus of that school and an extremely bright, progressive and witty dude who, as far as I know, has never gone into the “raging old man” mode.

          • Origami Isopod

            I’m not a big fan of the execution of A+. That said, given that they were going up against the types of guys who would later flock to Gamergate, and, more importantly, had been harassing Rebecca Watson nonstop for a full year by August 2012? Simply for saying, “Guys, don’t do that”? He was absolutely right to draw that line in the sand.

            • leftwingfox

              Yeah. To my understanding it was Greta Christina who originally proposed the idea of Atheism+ as a way to distinguish the “atheism+social justice” group from the big tent of “dictionary atheism” which includes everyone who doesn’t believe in gods, and considered racism, sexism, homophobia or economic issues to be irrelevant (at best) or cancer of the movement (at worst).

              This was during a lot of the rifts in the movement between groups like Freethoughtblogs and the Slymepit (antifeminists who flocked to a toxic “tribute” to free speech on ERV’s blog, then spun off into their own group dedicated to harassing atheist women and their defenders, especially at Freethoughtblogs).

              (I’ve been reading Pharyngula about as long as I’ve been reading this blog…)

    • Origami Isopod

      Linked in Myers’ comments:

      But University of Chicago students themselves told ThinkProgress that they believe the letter is meant to distract from the issues student activists are most concerned about, such as a living wage for campus workers, better services for students with disabilities, and what students say are racist policing practices from university police on the South Side of Chicago.

      “Dean Ellison has repeatedly refused to meet with student leaders about critical issues, including living wages on campus, accessibility for students with disabilities, and strengthening the university’s sexual assault policy,” Anna Wood, a student and university worker who has engaged in campus activism, wrote in a statement to ThinkProgress. “It’s ironic that during my time at the University of Chicago, administrators have continuously sought to create a comfortable space for themselves free of challenge by avoiding engagement with student leaders about these issues.”

  • If there’s one thing the University of Chicago Economics department has always accepted, it’s the free exchange of ideas and respect for disagreement without any attempt to isolate or persecute those who disagree with orthodoxy.

    • LosGatosCA

      Robert Lucas would be the first to fully agree with that.

      He would probably add that empiricism and being open to learning from experiences that might invalidate preconceived notions is equally important.

      • Augusto Pinochet

        I also agree.

        • Gregor Sansa

          Whoops, sorry. Belated trigger warning.

        • cpinva

          who is (hopefully) still dead.

    • Denverite

      Which one? They’ve got econ departments in both the regular university and in Booth.

    • Donalbain

      THey oppose safe spaces. And as such, they are very much in favour of making sure that helicopter rides over the sea or over deserts are not safe at all.

      • Snuff curry

        No, they advocate safe spaces for tenured faculty, moneyed interests, and visiting self-styled iconoclasts to spew reactionary garbage without, heaven forfend, having oppressive placards waved in their face or being forced to endure, gulp, a mass walkout.

    • elm

      Someone I follow on twitter (can’t remember who and can’t find it now) said of the letter, “And with this letter, the University of Chicago is announcing the elimination of their Economics Department.”

  • seedeevee

    “I’ve never understood the argument that trigger warnings are some kind of inherent threat to free speech on campus and I still don’t. ”

    There must be a problem in your cognitive dissonance discombobulator. You should get that checked.

    • Nobdy

      The best argument I’ve heard against trigger warnings is not that they inherently stifle free speech but that they allow students to avoid uncomfortable topics and thus stunt their intellectual growth. If you skip class every time something that makes you uncomfortable comes out then you avoid engaging with the material and…learning.

      Some students might also protest the inclusion of material they deem offensive and try to keep it from being included in the discussion.

      I don’t think, however, that anyone really uses trigger warnings like this. Instead they are used to let people brace for difficult topics and marshal additional evidence or support for their position if it differs from the conventional one.

      As such I’ve come around to seeing trigger warnings as a non-problem, and maybe beneficial to some people who have suffered legitimate pain and trauma and don’t want to unexpectedly have to deal with that in a public setting without any forewarning.

      • Porkman

        I think there is also the objection that it caters to those who would choose to ignore history.

        It’s the “Hitler was a monster” vs. “Hitler was an actual human being. He was a vegetarian, had a dog, and was good with kids. He also did horrible things because all humans are capable of horrible things.”

        • Nobdy

          I don’t understand how it caters to people who would choose to ignore history.

          • Porkman

            Ok, I will give a better example.

            The genocide of the native Americans.

            The Holocaust as a genocide was very different from what happened to the Native Americans in terms of process.

            The Holocaust was millions of people murdered in a very short period of time by representatives of the state directly. While Jews and others were demonized and hated by the German population, the regular German was not having regular disputes with their Jewish neighbor and then murdering them.

            In the US, the destruction was more gradual. Land was taken away. Anytime a settler a native disagreed, the government could either side with neither (rarely) or side with the settler (mostly). In that way, the government became a ratchet that would ensure that any losses that Native Americans suffered stayed lost.

            The state also did perpetrate the Indian Wars, but, like the post about the bounty for natives in California here earlier, most of the killing and land seizure was outsourced to normal everyday Americans with the government just their to legalize it after the fact.

            The dynamics of genocide are important, but if one stops at “I find genocide objectionable” Then they won’t learn about it. About how you can have the complete destruction of a people even when a government doesn’t murder thousands at a time. About how something as innocuous as a property deed or a language clause can kill.

            • Scott Lemieux

              There are many words here, yet none of them would appear to be remotely pertinent to the subject at hand.

              • Porkman

                I was thinking of the Chiitaanibah Johnson / Prof. Wiseman affair that happened last year.

                http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/education/article38147970.html

                Anyway, my point was that difficult subjects still have nuance and depth, and that allowing people to avoid said subjects because they are difficult, encourages a shallow understanding or at least let’s a shallow understanding go unchallenged.

                • Scott Lemieux

                  So, to confirm, you’re thinking of something that has nothing to do with trigger warnings.

                • (((Hogan)))

                  allowing people to avoid said subjects because they are difficult, encourages a shallow understanding or at least let’s a shallow understanding go unchallenged.

                  Which would be why no one proposes doing that.

                  And the SacBee article indicates pretty much the opposite of what you’re claiming. It’s the student who was trying to drill deeper into what happened and complicate the story.

                • But, really, trigger warnings aren’t a significant factor in people avoiding difficult or contentious subjects or…hard classes esp when compared with, oh, ratemyprof?

                • Gregor Sansa

                  While it’s true that this story is a red herring if used to distract from trigger warnings, it is an interesting one in its own right.

                  Professor says: In 1491 there were 25M people in mesoamerica and over 7M people further north. That’s not empty. A lot of them died, “I don’t like to use the word genocide” because most of those deaths were from disease with no intent behind it.

                  Native American student: WTF that’s racist.

                  Professor gets defensive, student gets aggressive, student kicked out of class, student goes to press, story goes viral.

                  I’d say that both sides initially (may have) had a point. The professor never said that genocide didn’t occur, merely that genocide is the wrong word for over half of the deaths. We don’t really know what happened but it’s easy to imagine a situation where professor and student end up talking past each other.

                  I’d say that the right answer is to make it a “teachable moment” about how the student is right, without saying the professor is wrong (because they arguably aren’t). Certainly making it into a cause celebre for both sides of the culture war is not the way to avoid such breakdowns in the future.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Oh also, we really do lack an umbrella term for the cause of death of those over-20M people. I mean, I can’t think of another megadeath event without clear terminology. Wars, plagues, genocides… they all have words for them, except for this one.

                  I’ve favored calling it the “conquistador plagues”. As in: “Over the course of the 15th-17th centuries, the Conquistador Plagues probably killed over 20M people, while the Native American Genocide probably killed around half that.”.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Ummm… those example numbers left out South America. CP probably killed 30-40M overall.

                • And really, that’s a teachable moment missed.

                  Plus, do some prep. If you are going to challenge the use of the term “genocide” for some parts of the extermination of native peoples, it’d better not be an aside. And you’d better be ready to discuss the problems of saying that it isn’t genocide (which generally IS read as minimising the event).

                  ETA or read Gregor’s comments.

                • If you are going to challenge the use of the term “genocide” for some parts of the extermination of native peoples, it’d better not be an aside. And you’d better be ready to discuss the problems of saying that it isn’t genocide (which generally IS read as minimising the event).

                  I have (weakly) advocated for using a typology of genocides (not necessarily a strict hierarchy) similar to that used for homicide. At least the beginnings of the “conquistador plague” (a great phrase, by the way) would then (presumably) be “negligent genocide”.

                • JMP

                  Trigger warnings are warnings, they do not allow people to avoid any subjects; you seem t6o be arguing against the straw man version of trigger warnings that was invented by Fox “News” and not the real thing.

                • CD

                  The depopulation of the Americas comes up in some stuff I teach and it’s really not hard to put a few readings together to deal with it carefully. (Most students have no clue it happened at all.)

                  To be a bit more on-topic: you gotta think forward to how a range of students will react to stuff, and you gotta anticipate that even if you think you’re teaching dispassionately, many students will have moral and political reactions first, and only get around to the analytical part after they’ve worked through those reactions. And so you structure class so they can do that.

                  And if despite that care, a student does go off on you, which will happen from time to time, you let them speak and thank them and, at most, ask a few polite question to clarify their views. This:

                  Johnson said Wiseman accused her of hijacking his class and implying he was racist, and kicked her out.

                  should not be happening.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Oh I thought of another untitled megadeath: Stalin’s body count. Though I did just refer to it unambiguously with three words or fewer, which would be hard to do for the “conquistador plagues” without that term.

            • brad

              2 questions.

              1. Wait, what? As has been mentioned, you’re not on topic.

              2. See 1, also find one example anywhere, ever, of a student, or indeed anyone at all, claiming that genocide being objectionable means they should be excused from learning about it.

              As opposed to, say, in a graduate level poli sci course in a school with a diverse and international student body giving warning that in covering genocidal acts in a certain country there will be some graphic material which anyone who, say, survived a genocide themselves might be sensitive to.
              Your objection isn’t to what trigger warnings actually are, but what you are so very deeply concerned they might end up being based on no connection to reality. Lazy students looking for excuses aren’t an argument against dismissing any claims of a relative’s death causing a problem, either.

      • leftwingfox

        Critics treat trigger warnings like they mean “Caution Keep Out”, as opposed to “Hang on, this is going to be a bumpy ride”.

        Having a trigger warning allows a student with anxiety or PTSD to prepare themselves mentally for the subject, reducing the chance of an anxiety attack from an unexpected trigger, and schedule time to deal with the emotional aftermath of an attack.

        • Origami Isopod

          This, precisely.

      • I don’t think, however, that anyone really uses trigger warnings like this. Instead they are used to let people brace for difficult topics and marshal additional evidence or support for their position if it differs from the conventional one.

        Yep.

        By the by, the single most effective mechanisms for allowing people to avoid topics they don’t wish to be confronted on are 1) accurate course descriptions and 2) free choice of classes.

        • JL

          I would add comprehensive syllabi to this. The paragraph summary that exists in a course catalog can only tell a student so much. To make an example up using a piece of media that has actually triggered me quite badly (though I wasn’t seeing it in an academic context), a course on the history of reproductive rights in the US might have a good description in the catalog, and a good syllabus, but is perhaps quite reasonably showing this one (excellent) documentary about a feminist collective performing illegal abortions in the ’60s, that has a rather sudden tangent where it shows footage of Chicago police beating 1968 DNC protesters with batons, and that is not something you’d necessarily expect from even a good catalog description and syllabus.

          Content notes/trigger warnings can still be useful even if one has all of these in place, though.

        • Snuff curry

          Content warnings aren’t used to avoid or dismiss thorny subjects or ideas altogether. They’re used so that readers / students / interlocutors, who might otherwise miss important content or skim over details, have a moment to prepare for what they’re about to consume and meet it in a spirit of intellectual curiosity. They very much want not to be offended, because uncontrolled offense or disgust can make one metaphorically blind or deaf to nuance.

          • I know. My point was that if any anti trigger warning folks actually care about students avoiding stuff they don’t want to deal with, they’d go after course descriptions and syllabi and course rankings.

            (It was meant as a bit of a reductio ;))

      • ThrottleJockey

        We’ve made it this far without trigger warnings, I suppose Civilization can continue to eke its way forward without trigger warnings.

    • cpinva

      i wish I’d been given a “Trigger Warning”, before taking Cost Accounting.

      • ThrottleJockey

        If you needed a trigger warning for Cost Accounting, someone was doing it wrong!

  • NewishLawyer

    Interestingly my academic professor friends were in favor of the letter and they aren’t exactly Republican sympathizers.

    I find it interesting that the issue of trigger warnings splits the left. I’m largely agnostic toward the trigger warning issue.

    • N__B

      I’ve been teaching variations on the same course (more or less, on construction history) since 1999. Two years ago I started incorporating a trigger warning for some content – I discuss a number of building collapses and fires with high fatality counts. It costs me twenty seconds of time* and nothing else. If it saves one person from being made uncomfortable for no good reason, isn’t it worth it?

      *To quote the Subdudes: “you need a minute take your time, you need an hour you can borrow
      mine, ’cause I’ve got all the time in the world”

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        have you ever had someone leave the room or have a noticeable reaction to the materiel you then present? (I think it’s basic decency to let people know what might be coming, am just curious how trigger warnings work out in practice)

        • N__B

          I had a few people look very unhappy while I was talking about the Triangle fire (141 dead) or the Brooklyn Theater fire (280+ dead). It’s not like I’m cracking jokes about these things, but I’m talking in purely technical terms.

          • KadeKo

            Brooklyn Theatre fire? I gotta read the book on that. I’ve read all the other ones, like about the Sultana, the General Slocum, and the Iriquois Theater.

            Personally I prefer books as I can skim over things. A deep-dive one-hour PBS-style show will make me close my eyes and cover my ears for a bit, but my wife can take more of that.

            PS

            I consider trigger warnings different for the right and the left. Compare:

            “This is an historic (article/book/novel/movie) created (60/80/140) years ago when certain terms and attitudes were in common use, which are not today.”

            v.

            “Your thirteen-year-old might get sexual urges from a public school health professional putting a prophylactic on a banana.”

            • N__B

              Here are the basics on the Brooklyn Theater. Consider this comment as your trigger warning, as it’s really ugly. (There are no pictures of people at the link.)

              • Origami Isopod

                I hadn’t heard of that fire before. Somehow it’s unsurprising that the people in the cheapest seats were killed in the greatest numbers.

                • N__B

                  The Chicago (1871) and Boston (1872) fires started a forty-year-long obsession in the American building industry with creating “fireproof” buildings. The Brooklyn Theater was one of the fires that kept the obsession going.

                  The obsession ended with Triangle: the building was basically untouched but it turned out that wasn’t enough. Then the obsession with egress and firefighting aids began, which continues to this day.

            • cpinva

              i too already knew about many of the tragedies you mentioned, but never heard about the Brooklyn Theatre fire either.

              right vs. left “Trigger Warnings”:

              left: something that happened that was horrible, of either a current or historical nature.

              right: anything to do with sex.

      • djw

        I’m curious; what kind of degree program is this for?

        • N__B

          Historic preservation. At several different schools.

          • cpinva

            “Historic preservation. At several different schools.”

            i was wondering that myself. how do these tragedies factor in to your lectures?

            • “Don’t carry historical accuracy to the point of installing artisinal antique padlocks on the exit doors!”, kind of thing, for starters, maybe.

            • N__B

              Engineers and people working in related fields learn best from failure. You can actually draw a timeline relating large-scale disasters to changes in building techniques and codes.

              FWIW, the process continues. Egress provisions changed (slightly) in response to both the 1993 WTC being and 9-11.

              • N__B

                “being” = “bombing”

                rassin’ frassin’ rum…

          • djw

            Interesting. Sounds like a fascinating class.

            • N__B

              Some of the students have thought so.

              Some.

      • CD

        Yes.

        There’s a basic level of anticipating student reactions that doesn’t even rise to the level of “issue.” If you pay attention to your students, you develop a sense of how different kinds of students process stuff, and anything you can do to make that go better is good. If people get upset they stop learning, so if there’s an easy way to mitigate that, you do it. There’s also the part about having a little human sympathy for the people who are trapped in your classroom for an hour or two.

        What is perhaps new in the last few years is heightened awareness of how combat veterans and victims of sexual assault may respond to some kinds of material. But I don’t see how understanding your students better is a bad thing.

        What do people who call this an “issue” imagine is happening? Do they imagine instructors *like* to frighten students, and universities are now outlawing that valuable pedagogy? The Chicago letter seems to assume an underlying sadism (which, granted, might not be wholly out of character for that institution). Or do people think we now have to get all our syllabi and readings approved by some tedious committee?

        • Arouet

          Honestly, I think the term trigger warning is idiotic because it sounds to them (and everyone else) like coddling lefty bullshit.

          The concept of preparing people for what you’re about to discuss to help them process it it unobjectionable. The terminology is stupid to the point that it doesn’t allow people to process the concept.

          • (((Hogan)))

            Honestly, I think the term trigger warning is idiotic because it sounds to them (and everyone else) like coddling lefty bullshit.

            So the problem is that people are dumb, shallow, and incurious. Got it.

          • Well, it’s a term of art related to PTSD. It only sounds like “coddling lefty bullshit” because it’s been repeatedly characterized as such by opponents. The term indicates that this isn’t just about flagging material that might make people uncomfortable or unhappy, but rather that it might have a serious deleterious effect on the student’s ability to participate in class.

            What about that is stupid?

          • sharculese

            It’s a ‘warning’ that material discussed might “trigger” an emotional response. What are we supposed to call it?

            The only reason it sounds dumb to you is that dumb assholes have succeeded in co-opting it as a sneer. We don’t have to let dumb assholes define the conversation.

      • advocatethis

        I have nothing to say about this except that quoting the subdudes should always be encouraged

      • ThrottleJockey

        I think there’s a slippery slope argument to be made that once you start flagging content as objectionable that there will be an inevitable attempt to restrict such content…On the whole, I think college should remain a place where ideas are challenged, even when those ideas make you uncomfortable.

        Can you imagine how I felt discussing the racism and pseudo-science of Charles Murray in my college classroom? Do you think I’d want to go back and a single bit of that? Not on your life.

    • JL

      That’s because there are a lot of whiny ass liberal profs profs who have somehow convinced themselves that progressive students have serious power over them and are part of a conspiracy with administrators to destroy academic freedom.

      I think the issue is that they see that admins sometimes criticize them and put restrictive policies in place, and they see that students sometimes criticize them, and think that these are part of the same phenomenon.

      Outside of academia (and in it) you get the “but not TOO progressive” people like Chait. And even among the solidly left you get people who just want to complain about kids these days and prove how tough they are, like Jack Halberstam.

  • Nobdy

    I’ve come around on trigger warnings and safe spaces (from anti to pro) in the last few years in large part due to the caliber of asshole I see opposing them, and the paper thin arguments they muster in support of their opposition.

    If you find yourself holding a position held almost exclusively by assholes and reactionaries then it’s probably a position worth re-evaluating. Especially if the best arguments they can come up with deliberately obfuscate the issues being discussed.

    I’d note that the Chicago letter does not even attempt to explain why Chicago does not allow “trigger warnings” (which don’t stifle any discussion at all, just tell people what will be raised in the discussion) and tries to hide the ball on protest against speakers (generally not done because the topic is controversial but rather because the person is a deplorable human being who has hurt many other people, or holds views that basically suggest certain groups of people are subhuman.)

    I think this is partially pitched at donors, but it’s also a warning shot across the bow of would-be student activists. It’s the corrupt sheriff socking the new guy in the gut and whispering in his ear “I run this town, you play by my rules.”

    Never underestimate the eagerness of powerful people to endorse authoritarianism.

    • twbb

      Does the letter disallow trigger warnings? It just says the University doesn’t support them, which is different.

      I am mildly anti-trigger-warning, but I think there is room for debate at the boundaries between what is appropriate concern for students and what becomes self-censorship, but considering both sides of this debate have so far painted their opposition as caricatures, I don’t know if that is happening.

      As someone who comes into contact with college students every day, the right-wing belief of campuses mired in political correctness and censorship is idiotic. Most students don’t care and are not particularly easily offended.

      On the other hand, the sneering dismissal on the left of any criticism at all is out of place. There are a fair number of college students who really do have a sense of entitlement about how every aspect of their educational environment should be tailored to their own pedagogical specifications. They’re a minority, but that doesn’t mean they can cause some damage.

      A lot of the protests seem like insecure young people posturing for social status and trying to exercise power over administrators — witness some of the ridiculous demand letters submitted by student protesters over the past year with lists of professors and administrators who must be fired “or else.” My philosophy is as essentially dumb 19-year-olds (in the sense that all 19-year-olds are in certain ways dumb), you don’t hold it against them that much, but you also don’t let them dictate policy.

      • Nobdy

        I don’t see a substantive argument against trigger-warnings in what you wrote. It’s more a procedural argument of “if you give in to the reasonable demands you’ll have to give in to the unreasonable demands.”

        I don’t think colleges should take a “we don’t negotiate with terrorists!” style hard line against the students who it is their mission to serve.

        You can accept the reasonable demands/suggestions and refuse the unreasonable ones.

        • Scott Lemieux

          You can accept the reasonable demands/suggestions and refuse the unreasonable ones.

          This idea is crazy it just might work!

      • djw

        Does the letter disallow trigger warnings?

        Absolutely not. To disallow trigger warnings for all faculty would be a clear violation of academic freedom as the UoC (and most universities) define it. Chicago has the same policy on trigger warnings as pretty much every other university in the country–professors can include them, or not, as they deem appropriate. The “doesn’t support” language is just weasel words; it doesn’t actually mean anything.

        A lot of the protests seem like insecure young people posturing for social status and trying to exercise power over administrators — witness some of the ridiculous demand letters submitted by student protesters over the past year with lists of professors and administrators who must be fired “or else.”

        I don’t understand why you’d put “I demand you fire Professor X” and “As a rape survivor, I’d appreciate some warning about graphic scenes or depictions or rape, so I can prepare myself/manage my PTSD” as requests that belong in the same category. They aren’t similar in any meaningful way I can see.

        • Porkman

          Except that “I demand you fire Professor X” is followed by “because as a rape survivor, I didn’t get some warning about graphic scenes or depictions or rape, so I can prepare myself/manage my PTSD.”

          Or some variation, which is less meritorious. See the Yale protests.

          • Scott Lemieux

            As djw says, this is an argument for tenure, not an argument against twitter warnings. (By the way, do you have any actual example of this happening?)

            • Porkman

              Didn’t the Yale protesters demand the proverbial head of Christakis?

              Yes, it’s also an argument for tenure.

              Though as to TWITTER warnings… I have no opinion on that.

              • Scott Lemieux

                The Yale case had nothing to do with trigger warnings, and as long as the 1st Amendment remains in place students are free to demand that people be fired, just as the administration can reject these demands.

              • mds

                Didn’t the Yale protesters demand the proverbial head of Christakis?

                They demanded that Nicholas and Erika Christakis no longer be employed in the separate sinecure of Master / Associate Master of Silliman College, a role which is usually viewed as somewhat different from that of professor. There were no coordinated demands that Erika Christakis be fired from her lectureship, there were no coordinated demands for Nicholas Christakis to be removed from his faculty position. As Yale itself puts it, “The Head of College acts as the chief administrative officer of the residential college and presides over its intellectual and social life, as well as having responsibility for its facilities and the general wellbeing of its students.” There is a definite student advocate and counselor component to the position, though the amount varies from college to college.

                And of course, as Lemieux notes, students could demand all they liked, but it would be entirely up to the administration (and the faculty member in question) whether to comply. The last I heard, Nicholas Christakis stepped down as Master and took sabbatical time, but remains a faculty member and director of two institutes. His wife resigned her lectureship, but there is no indication she was pressured by the administration to do so. Perhaps she can spend her free time taking a remedial reading course that in the future will allow her to distinguish between a e-mail encouraging students to be considerate in selecting Hallowe’en costumes and a university ban on Indian princess outfits for small children.

                • (((Hogan)))

                  Perhaps she can spend her free time taking a remedial reading course that in the future will allow her to distinguish between a e-mail encouraging students to be considerate in selecting Hallowe’en costumes and a university ban on Indian princess outfits for small children.

                  Oh be serious now. It’s only lefty SWJ students who overreact to minor stimuli.

          • DocAmazing

            You can’t fire Professor X. Who’d run the School for Exceptional Youngsters?

            • N__B

              It can’t be that hard. The White Queen could do it in her underwear.

      • Donalbain

        I don’t understand this. How is a trigger warning any form of censorship?

        • a_paul_in_mtl

          It isn’t, but I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with certain topics being flagged as problematic – it may strike them as a prelude to censorship, or permitting students to not deal with ideas they don’t like.

          However, as numerous people have pointed out, if you were going to remove controversial topics from the syllabus, you’d just do it. You wouldn’t say “we’re going to talk about this, and it can be very upsetting, so be prepared”

          • It seems to me that these are long-standing, uncontroversial facts: some sights, sounds, and words can be deeply upsetting to the point of involuntary physical reaction (e.g. seeing a dead body); this effect varies between people for various reasons (e.g. seeing your sibling’s dead body); and that basic decency requires that, if it is necessary to witness such a thing, a person should at least be permitted to prepare for it (e.g. before identifying for police a body that is believed to be one’s sibling).

            We also know that people who have suffered trauma can have involuntary stress reactions to things that remind them of that trauma. I think everyone has experienced unbidden tears when hearing a song or seeing an object that reminds them of a departed loved one. We also know that these stress reactions can make it impossible to work or participate in class.

            Finally, we know that certain types of trauma are particularly common: sexual assault, child and partner abuse, attacks based on minority group status, wartime experiences. There’s as many triggers as there are people with PTSD, but there are some which are so common — and which are also likely to show up in course materials — that it’s worth pointing them out when they occur.

            I think a lot of the objection to “trigger warnings” is based on the entirely false belief that it’s a kind of scarlet letter — that it indicates the material is bad or objectionable. This couldn’t be more wrong. Bloggers apply trigger/content warnings to their own writing, or to the writing of others they want you to read. The entire point of trigger warnings is to acknowledge that something worthy can also be dangerous for some people.

            This kind of absolutist assumption extends beyond trigger warnings. For instance, the recent novel usage of “problematic” was specifically intended to find a way to describe something that is good, worthwhile, enjoyable, meaningful, important, etc. but also has some qualities that are shitty. It’s about keeping your eyes open, not shutting them. But people frequently interpret it as just meaning “bad”. Similarly people interpreting the Bechdel test as being the guidelines for a ban, etc. ad infinitum.

            • JL

              Right! I put trigger warnings on my own writing, including first-person accounts of violence that I really want to be widely read. Many things that are likely to trigger me are things I think are important! It’s not a scarlet letter!

            • Origami Isopod

              This kind of absolutist assumption extends beyond trigger warnings. For instance, the recent novel usage of “problematic” was specifically intended to find a way to describe something that is good, worthwhile, enjoyable, meaningful, important, etc. but also has some qualities that are shitty. It’s about keeping your eyes open, not shutting them. But people frequently interpret it as just meaning “bad”. Similarly people interpreting the Bechdel test as being the guidelines for a ban, etc. ad infinitum.

              While I don’t think this has that much application at the university level, some of this confusion does actually come from people who are in favor of trigger warnings etc. Tl;dr: Some people don’t do shades of grey, including on the left, because they’re very young, they’re not very smart, or both.

          • JL

            It isn’t, but I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with certain topics being flagged as problematic

            The thing is that trigger warnings/content notes aren’t flagging topics as problematic, they’re flagging them as topics that are likely to trigger people. There’s a difference. I put trigger warnings on my own writing when I’m covering topics where it seems appropriate. That’s not because I’m trying to flag my own writing as inappropriate, it’s because I don’t want a (fellow) person with PTSD being caught unaware by a post that’s about the thing that traumatized them. I know from experience how much difference knowing what’s coming, vs not knowing, makes.

            Your last paragraph suggests that you understand this. I’m commenting for the sake of any third parties who may be genuinely confused.

      • A lot of the protests seem like insecure young people posturing for social status and trying to exercise power over administrators

        Putting aside why you would use such a deeply unfair and inaccurate description, even if this were accurate…so what? This merits a preempting letter? Is such a letter even effective? And it’s not like the letter was thoughtful or thought provoking or even had any sort of useful notion of academic freedom.

        • CD

          +1.

          This is college. People will protest stuff. Sometimes reasonably, sometimes not. This is why Deans are paid the big bucks.

          And while twbb may be right about

          a fair number of college students who really do have a sense of entitlement about how every aspect of their educational environment should be tailored to their own pedagogical specifications

          many students, especially first-generation students, don’t have nearly enough sense of entitlement. A lot of shit really is fucked up. Students should push.

      • a_paul_in_mtl

        “Does the letter disallow trigger warnings? It just says the University doesn’t support them, which is different.”

        I’m not sure what the actual difference is. If a university official is saying that, as a matter of policy, “we don’t support x”, what does that actually mean, and how are the readers of the letter supposed to understand it? If you’re not actually saying “we don’t allow that here”, then what is the point of making this kind of statement in the first place?

        Even worse, if the Dean is going to claim that the reason for “not supporting x” is because x is an infringement of academic freedom, that suggests that x has no place in the university, does it not?

      • ColBatGuano

        the right-wing belief of campuses mired in political correctness and censorship is idiotic.

        This belief is reinforced by the likes of Chait.

        • elm

          But you repeat yourself…

  • Denverite

    What a fucking shithole. The worst part is that Daley pere cleared out a ton of great neighborhoods on the near west side to make room for UIC. And the campus? Ugly as hell. Though I love Chez Joel and there is a great tapas place in University Village, so there’s that.

    • Turangalila

      I don’t know Chicago neighborhoods, but isn’t UIC a different school?

      • Denverite

        No that’s UIUC in Urbana-Champaign. UIC is the one in Chicago in the West Loop.

    • mombrava

      Wrong university, though its history is no less troublesome.

      • Denverite

        Are you sure you’re not thinking of Chicago State? The one that’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy now?

        • Turangalila

          UIC is the state school located in the University Village area

          This is all about the University of Chicago – the more famous private uni, in Hyde Park.

    • solidcitizen

      The article seems to be about the University of Chicago. You seem to be writing about the University of Illinois-Chicago. Are we missing something?

      • Denverite

        I don’t follow

        • calling all toasters

          The University of Chicago is a private university, not part of the Illinois system. Unlike UIC.

          • Vance Maverick

            Denverite clearly knows this, but is pursuing the confusion for reasons that escape me, probably a joke I don’t get.

            • Denverite

              [/troll] It’s a joke about how U of C grads hate it when it gets confused with UIUC.

              But trolling people who don’t realize that I’m fully aware of the difference is funny. Our household has three degrees from UIC, er, I mean U of C.

              • calling all toasters

                You poor fuckers.

              • N__B

                UIUC

                Pronounced “oik”?

              • Turangalila

                But trolling people who don’t realize that I’m fully aware of the difference is funny.

                Er, how exactly? From a stranger’s POV it seems less “funny ha ha” than just generally funny looking.

          • Nobdy

            I always thought it was just a prestigious public university, like the University of Michigan or the University of Pennsylvania.

            • Denverite

              ISWYDT

            • calling all toasters

              ISWYDTT.

            • mds

              Humph. How about a little love for the unsung high-quality public universities, like the University of Rochester?

              • (((Hogan)))

                Now with campuses in Anaheim, Azusa, and Cucamonga.

      • solidcitizen

        I thought you might be doing a bit. I seem to recall a similar thread from a couple of months ago.

        • Denverite

          Yes

  • pianomover
    • I don’t think much of Scott Alexander but that is an excellent post. He also has a good comment further down:

      … trigger warn for rape, nastiness to any demographic group (including majority groups), extreme violence or bullying, blasphemy, torture, graphic descriptions of war, horror, and really gross stuff like dead bodies and wounds and swarming insects.

      If you are in contact with individual readers of your work, and some of them express strong preferences for personalized triggers, then try to include them as long as you have few enough readers that this isn’t a massive juggling act.

      Those categories are all fuzzy, but readers should assume good faith and POLITELY ask for recategorization if something slips by in a way that hurts THEM PERSONALLY (not some hypothetical other reader). Writers should respond to polite requests, either politely agreeing to do so in the future or politely refusing because there are too many such requests and it would be too burdensome. Readers should then politely accept the writer’s decision and either continue reading or choose not to.

      I couldn’t have put it better. Pity that it’s followed by an extended argument about the precise definition of “Schelling point”. So rational!

      • Origami Isopod

        I don’t think much of Scott Alexander but that is an excellent post.

        Also a clever post title.

  • Joseph Slater

    More so than any other subject I can think of, people are talking past each other. What (well-intentioned) opponents of “trigger warnings” think of when they hear that term is really different than what (well-intentioned) proponents of “trigger warnings” think of when they hear that term.

    • (well-intentioned) opponents of “trigger warnings”

      I have seen few examples, if any, of such “well-intentioned opponents”. Certainly I see no reason to believe that any university administrator is well-intentioned in that way. Who, specifically, are you thinking of, and on what grounds do you base your assessment of their good intentions?

      • Joseph Slater

        Some liberal academics or very pro-free-speech types who understand “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” to mean “right to refuse to deal with ideas that make me uncomfortable.” Let me stress that *I* don’t think that’s what it means, but the idea is out there.

      • Porkman

        I don’t like trigger warnings. Though my objection is a corollary to the idea that the concept of “triggering” has gone from a real aspect in the lives of those who have PTSD to becoming a status marker for people who want to bear the biggest cross.

        Triggers and PTSD are a real thing, but the prevalence of trigger warnings and “triggering” as a verb is disrespectful to all of those who actually have those problems.

        By way of example, I have Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

        Symptoms include fatigue and intermittent paralysis. It’s usually diagnosed via MRI by looking for scarring in conjunction with other symptoms. That said, there are people who have it who show no scarring and people who have scarring with few or any symptoms.

        Now, I benefit from the presumption of truth such that if I ask for a day extension because I have debilitating fatigue I can get one.

        Now, imagine that “MS” has gone from a specific condition in medical literature to a pop culture term for feeling tired or getting tingly feelings in a limb.

        Imagine that people are falling asleep in class and saying “Such an MS day.”

        Imagine that you can’t actually question whether someone actually has a medical diagnosis of MS because that might “trigger” their MS.

        People who actually have it and need such dispensations might get pissed because now the idea of having MS has been entirely trivialized in the popular imagination. They might get pissed. I know that I would.

        “Respect people’s PTSD” is fine. But the threshold at which we accept that people have it is far too low.

        • Nobdy

          This is an argument for reasonably determining what should warrant a trigger warning, not for categorically denying them.

          • Donalbain

            I don’t think it is even that. A trigger warning is not allowing a student to avoid any work. It is just letting them know that the work that is coming may contain certain things that might make them uncomfortable or worse.

            • Porkman

              Are you kidding?

              If someone actually has PTSD and needs to avoid a trigger than they absolutely should get a dispensation.

              If they don’t, then it’s not a “trigger” warning, since there is no risk of triggering.

              All foods have notifications about possible allergens, but that doesn’t mean that every ingredient on the label is an “allergy warning.”

              • sharculese

                When you feel like you get to decide whose emotional responses merit concern and whose don’t, you’re no longer advancing an argument. You’re just being a selfish creep.

              • Origami Isopod

                If someone actually has PTSD and needs to avoid a trigger than they absolutely should get a dispensation.

                If they don’t, then it’s not a “trigger” warning, since there is no risk of triggering.

                You have no idea how trigger warnings actually work. They are meant to give the student time to prepare themselves to read or watch the course content. Not to let them duck out of it.

        • brad

          This is a good moment to remember that, despite how it’s now used, social justice warrior was an ironic term created by the left to mock those (mostly upper class white people, let’s face it) who confuse caring about others with how they want to think of themselves.
          The people who actually need and work for these things have, for the most part, their priorities properly calibrated.

        • MikeJake

          I don’t think trigger warnings are categorically “wrong,” but my cynicism tends to lead me to doubt the motivations of those espousing them. Feels like attention seeking.

          I’m one of those assholes annoyed by what Colin Kaepernick did, not because his stance was wrong or objectionable, I just feel like “Dude, who are you to call all this attention to yourself? You’re not a top 10 QB.” I have no carefully reasoned intellectual position, I’m just being a hater because I feel annoyed by all the publicity and discussion. It’s all coming from my spleen.

          • sparks

            How do you feel about John Carlos and Tommie Smith?

            • MikeJake

              I’m fine with them, though I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t have been a crotchety grump about them if I had been alive when they actually did what they did.

              But then they raised their fists at a time when every personal stand wasn’t trumpeted across the internet as an Act Of Incredible Bravery, Now Click Here For A Slideshow Of Nine Other Inspiring Stands.

            • J. Otto Pohl
        • farin

          Would “content warning,” for things that are likely to be viscerally upsetting to some significant portion of the population for whatever reasons, address your issue here? The link to PTSD makes me a little uncomfortable, too; there are things that take me out of whatever I’m reading, and that I’d like to be warned about, but I certainly don’t think that’s a symptom of PTSD in my case.
          “Respect people’s sensitivities” seems like a less problematic guideline.

          • Arouet

            I think it would address many peoples’ issues. The idea that anyone who doesn’t have a medical condition (PTSD, etc.) being “triggered” rather than just “upset” by content is, as far as I know, bullshit. Content warning accurately describes the intention, so people don’t sound ridiculous by claiming they were “triggered” by reading about upsetting content when that’s clearly not true in any medical sense.

            • JL

              It has become pretty common for people to use “content note” or “content warning” and that has not made a whit of difference to all the people in academia – the context of the OP – who think they’re infantilizng or somehow affront to Free Speech (TM).

        • Matt

          Now, I benefit from the presumption of truth such that if I ask for a day extension because I have debilitating fatigue I can get one.

          But the threshold at which we accept that people have it is far too low.

          Similarly, clearly our standard at which we accept that you have MS is far too low. Either lose mobility entirely or else we’ll decide you’re faking, faker.

          If you’re offended by the above, you’re cordially invited to go fuck yourself.

        • a_paul_in_mtl

          ““Respect people’s PTSD” is fine. But the threshold at which we accept that people have it is far too low.”

          Really, what are you basing this claim on?

        • JL

          I would say, as someone with PTSD, that all the people out there writing anti-trigger-warning pieces in which they make fun of the concept of triggers, perhaps with a stock photo of a crying baby to illustrate their point, and call people with triggers advocates of censorship, is what’s making me feel trivialized and pissed off.

          Also that trigger warnings are basically an attempt to implement a social model of disability (making spaces accessible for as close to all people as possible from the beginning, rather than making inaccessible spaces and making people prove themselves to apply for accommodations within those inaccessible spaces.

          I don’t love it when people dilute PTSD-related words, but 1) there’s often an assumption that people saying that they are being triggered are diluting the concept of triggering, without considering that maybe they actually are being triggered or something related, 2) “trigger” is not unique to PTSD (eating disorders, for instance, can also have triggers), and 3) the dilution of mental-illness-related words is an unfortunately common phenomenon, to a degree where I’d say that whatever overuse of “triggering” exists is one of the smaller manifestations. People say they’re depressed when they’re sad, refer to a moody person as bipolar, refer to a person who changes their mind a lot as schizophrenic, refer to a horrible person as psychotic, sociopathic, or narcissistic.

      • libarbarian

        I have seen few examples, if any, of such “well-intentioned opponents”.

        I can see how someone like me could be meant.

        I have no problem with voluntary use of trigger warnings in and of themselves. They can be good things. But… I am generally against allowing students to opt out, without penalty, of the readings or assignments. At least I think the bar should be very high. However, that, like their use at all, should really be up to the teacher.

        What I am ABSOLUTELY against is sanctioning or punishing teachers who don’t use them, or failed to use them in some case, our used them but didn’t excuse some students who asked to opt out of some assignment.

        And I do believe that that I’d the end game of a not insignificant subsection of advocates for them. I do believe that there are those who do want to ultimately make them non-voluntary policy with penalties for non-compliance.

        • elm

          Can you point to anyone who has said it should be mandatory? I hear lots of people worrying they will become such but I’ve never heard anyone say they should actually be.

        • But… I am generally against allowing students to opt out, without penalty, of the readings or assignments

          Is there any form of trigger warning commonly proposed that does this? I mean, I’ve never seen that.

          • twbb

            From the old Oberlin policy:

            “Strongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alterative assignment using different materials. When possible, help students avoid having to choose between their academic success and their own wellbeing.”

            http://web.archive.org/web/20131222174936/http:/new.oberlin.edu/office/equity-concerns/sexual-offense-resource-guide/prevention-support-education/support-resources-for-faculty.dot

            • ok, thanks. This wasn’t quite how I understood the original complaintp, which was that dome students could choose to do less than others. But it’s definitely on the stronger end.

              • The parent bullet point:

                Sometimes a work is too important to avoid. For example, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more. Here are some steps you, as a professor, can take so that your class can examine this source in the most productive and safe manner possible:

                So they aren’t super coherent, but I don’t think it quite supports the original point. It does say that trigger warnings are opt out clauses, it says consider whether triggering material is necessary to the course. If not, consider making it supplementary. If it is, use trigger warnings. It doesn’t say how to determine the necessity.

                • twbb

                  Oh it’s definitely not directly on that point, though I do think the proposed policy (which I think was abandoned in part because of faculty resistance to the quoted passages) suggests that not holding students responsible for triggering material is part of the debate. The fact that this didn’t pass even at Oberlin does suggest it’s not a mainstream idea yet, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a slippery slope argument in this situation.

                  Anonymous internet comments aren’t proof of much, but at least some people seem to be arguing that there really should be an opt-out option:

                  http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/should-discomfort-excuse-students-from-having-to-complete-an-assignment/

                • Oh it’s definitely not directly on that point, though I do think the proposed policy (which I think was abandoned in part because of faculty resistance to the quoted passages) suggests that not holding students responsible for triggering material is part of the debate.

                  Well, what does this mean, exactly? I have trouble reading even that passage as saying “Don’t teach the Holocaust”.

                  Again, if students want to avoid stuff, it’s always been possible and easy: Don’t take those classes. Even distribution requirements don’t force you to take e.g., Holocaust studies.

                  If there is equivalent alternative material then why not take in the *nature* of the challenge? We do this for *difficulty* all the time.

                  The fact that this didn’t pass even at Oberlin does suggest it’s not a mainstream idea yet, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a slippery slope argument in this situation.

                  Well, the wrongness is that afaict we don’t slide down it. Tigger and content warnings have been common currency for decades now and hasn’t, afaict, led to the systematic bowdlerisation of university curricula. I can go either way with the Oberlin policy. Some parts seem useful. Overall, not the best formulation by quite a bit.

                  In general, most student complaints are data, not conclusion (things like sexual harassment have a different status). But data they are and you have to assess whether they support a change to the course.

                  Anonymous internet comments aren’t proof of much, but at least some people seem to be arguing that there really should be an opt-out option:

                  I’ll just note:

                  Students 13 and older are invited to comment below.

                  And the comments range from the thoughtful (though often incomplete) to the silly. Hardly the harbinger of the sensitipolcolpyse.

                  I mean, students try to get out of assignments for all sorts of reasons. Sorting through the appropriate and inappropriate situations is part of the job.

                  ETA: Thanks for both links, btw. They were interesting.

      • ASV

        I have seen few examples, if any, of such “well-intentioned opponents”.

        Part of what keeps me ambivalent on this subject, and leaning towards the idea that trigger warnings are mostly about posturing, is that literally every discussion I see about it contains dismissive, bad-faith declarations like this.

        • ColBatGuano

          Well, do you have some examples of “well-intentioned opponents”?

          • ASV

            I can provide you with plenty of colleagues’ names if you’d like to contact them and ferret out their intentions for yourself.

      • Sly

        I have seen few examples, if any, of such “well-intentioned opponents”.

        That’s because there is not a single argument against trigger warnings that can’t be bookended with the phrases “Back in my day…” and “… pussification of America” and lose any semantic meaning.

    • Scott Lemieux

      The problem is that, however well-intentioned, what “opponents of “trigger warnings” think of when they hear that term” is not actually grounded in any discernible reality.

    • elm

      As Scott says, what the so-called “well intentioned” opponents mean by trigger warning bears no resemblance to the vast majority of actual uses of trigger warnings. I suppose there’s someone out there calling for mandatory trigger warning and professors being punished for not using them. And I suppose there’s someone out there saying students should be excused from doing any assignment/reading that triggers them.

      But that’s not what nearly everyone proponent/user of trigger warning say or do. Opponents of trigger warnings who continue to argue against these frictions or rarities are either ignorant (possibly willfully at this point) or obfuscating on purpose. You want to critique the straw man that all profs must put multi-page trigger warnings on their syllabi and allow students to opt out of any work that might trigger them or else the prof will be punished by the administration, go ahead as I agree such a policy would be wrong. Such a policy does not exist, though, and virtually no one advocating for trigger warnings want such a policy.

      • Joseph Slater

        That was the point I was trying to make.

        • elm

          Then what’s with the the “both sides do it” tone to your comment? Isn’t it incumbent on the critics to be critiquing something that actually sexists? (Apologies if I’m reading into your comment something you didn’t intend, but the “talking past each other” phrase makes me think both sides are to blame.)

          • Joseph Slater

            I’m happy to critique actual sexists (sorry, couldn’t resist).

            My point, perhaps poorly expressed, was that (i) I have seen some well-intentioned liberals critique “trigger warnings, but (ii) what they are critiquing isn’t what defenders are defending. If you would like me to add, “and I think defenders are more accurate as to what actually exists,” then sure. But people are talking past each other still.

            • elm

              Ok, that makes sense. Sorry for being nitpicky. (Also, it’s kind of weird that my autocorrect reaches for ‘sexists’ instead of ‘exists.’ Says something about which word I type more often, although maybe it only does say when I’m typing in LGM’s comment threads.)

      • Scott Lemieux

        But that’s not what nearly everyone proponent/user of trigger warning say or do. Opponents of trigger warnings who continue to argue against these frictions or rarities are either ignorant (possibly willfully at this point) or obfuscating on purpose. You want to critique the straw man that all profs must put multi-page trigger warnings on their syllabi and allow students to opt out of any work that might trigger them or else the prof will be punished by the administration, go ahead as I agree such a policy would be wrong. Such a policy does not exist, though, and virtually no one advocating for trigger warnings want such a policy.

        Precisely.

        • Frequently Confused

          I may be wrong and I’m not really up to researching at the moment, but wasn’t that what students at Berkley were calling for last year? If not then I apologize but I could have sworn they wanted a professor fired for not using trigger warnings.

          (if anyone is wondering, my folks are in town and I’ve been drinking a lot and am busy, thus both late and not really up to extensive google work.)

  • Denverite

    It seems to me more likely than not that John Ellison is not talking to his future students here. It seems to me that he is more likely than not to be talking to those of their parents who spend an unhealthy amount of time glued to and being traumatized by Fox News. And he is doing so in the hope that those parents will send more students to U. of C. It’s a marketing ploy–not part of an orientation for new students.

    In all seriousness, I guess I don’t understand this. Why would you be trying to convince the parents of students already going to the U of C to, well, send their kids to the U of C? And even this disregards the fact that by all accounts, the school is doing just fine in terms of attracting undergrad applicants at present. (Full disclosure: A very good friend is seniorish in their admissions department.)

    I really don’t think that DeLong is right about what’s going on, though I’ll admit I have no idea myself.

    • Nobdy

      It’s not for the parents of currently attending students (or insofar as it is the intention is perhaps to solicit donations.)

      Instead it is a broader fundraising appeal. Even if the letter hadn’t gone viral (which it did) fundraisers could tell right-leaning alumni “look at the letter we sent to our freshman! This is an institution you want to support.”

      Who knows, this may have actually been suggested or even demanded by some wealthy right leaning alumnus. But even if it wasn’t, it’s something that can easily be pointed to during a fundraising appeal.

    • elm

      The NYT had a story a little while ago about how donations are dropping at Amherst and other schools where leftist protests have been occurring. This is our alma mater trying to signal to their own alums (and parents of future alums as the like) that they are not one of those lefty schools and you can continue in good conscience to give money to them.

      • wjts

        I think there’s also some signaling to alumni that the U of C, unlike other, lesser universities, won’t compromise its traditions (real and imagined) of intellectual toughness and small-c conservatism.

    • djw

      I assumed that too. If they were making a point for donors, I’d think they’d have made the statement public, rather than just send it to students and hope it goes viral so donors end up getting the message.

      My Occam’s razor explanation was “Administrator ham-fistedly tries to interpellate freshmen into becoming the kind of student–cerebral, studious, unemotional–that fits with his vision of the Chicago brand.” But, in interpreting the motives of administrators at high-profile universities, I’d generally advocate putting more stock in Delong’s hunches than my own.

    • a_paul_in_mtl

      The point of the letter seems to be to say “You’ll have heard about the pernicious lefty PC culture that plagues so many of our universities, with its “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” and protests against so-called “controversial speakers”. You’ll be glad to know we don’t hold with any of that nonsense here! Harumph!”

  • Joe_JP

    Mark Tushnet and Mark Graber comment too at Balkinization.

    PrawfsBlawg covers it too with some additional stuff in comments.

    ETA: major thing here is defining the terms in some unnecessarily narrow fashion with an ideological holier than thou tinge. That sort of thing should be generally avoided but is favored by hacks.

  • LosGatosCA

    This just seems to be earning media in support of soliciting donations on behalf of a university that doesn’t put up with pansy-assed liberal political correctness.

    He rightly sees the market segment/opportunity Trump has crystallized and he wants some of the action. If just one Koch Bro, Adelson, Singer, etc sends along a $5m check that’s a fantastic return. If it precipitates a relationship with some other billionaire who becomes a lifelong patron because there needs to be an academic bulwark against those DFH’s that’s even better.

    I think the students, parents, faculty are just props here.

    ETA: the Republican donors are not contributing to Trump’s campaign – somebody should be scooping up that spare cash. The UC guy is brilliant in recognizing this.

    • LosGatosCA

      Also, the guy recognizes the time to act is right now. Full props for doing so.

      Why not last year? Why not next year?

      Because all that normal Republican presidential donor cash is lying around right now. Be the first mover at the opportune time.

  • Dilan Esper

    There is a sort of absolutist model of academic freedom that basically says that professors have close to total freedom as to what they present in class, and stufents don’t have a veto over it because they disagree with it.

    Under this model, a school that took action against a professor who didn’t give a content warning would be impinging, at least to some extent, on that professor’s freedom in the classroom.

    The other thing to remember is there are no trigger warnings in real life. If a lawyer is sitting in a court waiting for his or her motion to be called and the facts of the matter currently being argued cause a trigger, well, too bad. You don’t get a warning and you have to do your job. There’s a real question as to whether college should shield students from stuff they will need to cope with after graduation, or be more like boot camp and seek to teach them to grow thicker skins so they don’t fail in life once they graduate.

    Finally I worry somewhat about conservative parents and students who pick this concept up and use it as a weapon against evolution, sex ed, and other topics that cause them discomfort.

    • elm

      But trigger warnings are not about forcing teachers to give content warnings or allowing students to take action against those who don’t. This is a total straw man.

      • Murc

        But trigger warnings are not about forcing teachers to give content warnings

        Uh.

        That’s… that’s precisely what a trigger warning is, isn’t it?

        • elm

          No. Who is saying professors should be disciplined for not giving trigger warnings?

          • Murc

            Oh! I see what you’re saying.

            Well… I mean, I am, I guess. If trigger warnings are a good idea they should probably be mandated. Why wouldn’t you?

            • djw

              Because letting faculty exercise their own judgment over when/where/how they should be used is probably a better idea than some administrative one-size-fits-all rule?

              • Murc

                I suppose, but doesn’t that create tension between… most universities have a sort of generalized “you can’t disrespect or abuse your students” rule on the books re: professorial behavior, and isn’t there are an argument to be made that for materiel that is obviously and blatantly going to be triggering, if the professor is like “Fuck it, imma just drop this on people, I don’t even care” they’re violating that standard?

                • Steve LaBonne

                  You just explained why only the phrase “trigger warning” is relatively new, not the thing Itself. The crusade against “trigger warnings” is just right-wing derp, and I’m sorry to see people who should know better taken in by it.

              • altofront

                While I agree with you, do you trust the administrators at your institution to agree?

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      the fact that there aren’t trigger warnings in real life suggests to me that people will indeed learn to toughen up even if every now and again they actually *get* a trigger warning

      • Steve LaBonne

        There are no content warnings before TV shows or NPR news stories? What’s the difference between those and “trigger warnings”?

        • Scott Lemieux

          Nothing.

          • jim, some guy in iowa

            you’re punishing me for being willing to accept Dilan’s prior aren’t you

            • Isn’t Dilan’s byline trigger warning enough?!?

              • Dilan Esper

                Bijan, your obsession with me continues. Please stop interacting with me.

              • You need to rethink your understanding of “interact”.

                And please stop lying about my psychology and behaviour. Thanks!

                (I do wonder why you are so hell bent on stopping me from commenting. It’s pretty strange!)

                • CD

                  I think his idea is that any comment thread started by Dilan should be a Bijan-free zone. You know, a safe space.

                • Ooo, nice way of putting it.

                  What’s weird is how personal it is. I mean, my actual Dilan comments are pretty typical in content and frequency to what other people write. Yet he seems set on this line of bizarre attack as a systematic response.

        • Arouet

          The fact that they’re accurately labeled for the public rather than an easily-dismissed reflection of exclusively academic discourse?

      • JL

        There are plenty of trigger warnings in non-academic life. That’s where students got the concept of trigger warnings. They come out of feminist discussion spaces and media fandom circles.

        This isn’t even getting into all of the ways in which we discuss and introduce content that are functionally equivalent to trigger warnings but aren’t called that.

    • Steppanhammer

      The fact that in real life, it’s much more difficult to avoid your PTSD triggers, is a terrible reason to not warn about them in a place where we do have the power to.

      • Nobdy

        It may be a sign that we should do more to be sensitive in “the real world” whatever that means.

        However, I think the idea that it’s “more difficult” to avoid PTSD triggers in “the real world” isn’t true, mostly because in the real world you have much more control over what you’re exposed to.

        Sure, a rape survivor triggered by discussions of rape couldn’t avoid such discussions if she were to get a job as a sex crimes prosecutor, but most people with PTSD don’t go into fields where they are routinely triggered. Unlike in college if you are, say, a logistics engineer it’s unlikely you will often hear discussions of rape (or if you do you can probably raise it with HR as inappropriate in the workplace.)

        The fact that college IS a place for deep intellectual inquiry and free-roaming investigation of facts and theories is part of what makes it so likely to broach subjects that trigger people. In a real world insurance office you’re much more likely to be bored by inane anodyne crap than triggered.

        • Steppanhammer

          “It may be a sign that we should do more to be sensitive in “the real world” whatever that means.”

          It’s half of that, and half of “this is where we easily have the power to be more sensitive, we should be more sensitive”.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Under this model, a school that took action against a professor who didn’t give a content warning would be impinging, at least to some extent, on that professor’s freedom in the classroom.

      If any non-trivial number of people were calling for mandatory trigger warnings implemented by university administrations, this would be relevant.

      If a lawyer is sitting in a court waiting for his or her motion to be called and the facts of the matter currently being argued cause a trigger, well, too bad.

      I’m finding it hard to believe that your hypothetical person became a lawyer.

    • sharculese

      Finally I worry somewhat about conservative parents and students who pick this concept up and use it as a weapon against evolution, sex ed, and other topics that cause them discomfort.

      How? Trigger warnings don’t work that way.

      I had a marine biology professor in college who pretty much gave a trigger warning about evolution. He explained the facts of Kitzmiller v. Dover and then said, “this is a science class at a public university. It is premised on acceptance of evolution as an explanation for the creation of life. You can believe anything you want, but if you want to pass this class you’ll go along with that.”

      It took like a minute, was kind of funny, and never came up again.

      • Steve LaBonne

        I think that’s exactly the right approach

  • Zipp Zanderhoff

    “Trigger warnings” aren’t a new thing, even if the term itself is.

    I went to college back before “trigger warnings” had that name. As a student of foreign policy, I’d frequently be in classes where mass death and genocide would arise. The professor would give us a heads up when things were going to get graphic, but nobody ever chose to opt out or anything. Literally nobody gave a shit about “trigger warnings” until they were called “trigger warnings”.

    It’s a symbolic issue that people are using as a proxy for their larger distaste to “oversensitive” millennial, student protest culture, or what ever other dumb hill these people are choosing to die on.

    • N__B

      The professor would give us a heads up when things were going to get graphic

      Yeah. It’s called being a decent human being. (Which is why it took me fifteen years to start doing it…)

    • djw

      “Trigger warnings” aren’t a new thing, even if the term itself is.

      Indeed. I seem to recall faculty I TAed for giving students a heads-up about some of the graphic footage in, say, a documentary about the Rwandan genocide without anyone fretting much about it. Beyond the college environment, we went through a national political debate about trigger warnings 20 years ago, which resulted in the parental rating system for TV programs that are now ubiquitous. Curiously, a Venn diagram of the people clamoring for the government to institute this system of trigger warnings in the mid-90’s and people suggesting that the occasional voluntary use of trigger warnings in college syllabi is a horrific offense to free inquiry, political correctness run amock, and so forth, probably has considerably overlap.

      • ASV

        Those are really qualitatively different things. For one thing, when the system was implemented it told you nothing about content, it was just “TV-14” or whatever. Now it tells you next to nothing about content. “TV-14 LV” might be a few “shit”s and a shootout, or it might be a building exploding, or it might be a rape. Emotional abuse that doesn’t use naughty language might not show up as any of those broad indicators. You really don’t have specifics about what the content will contain. You also don’t have an explicit suggestion that sensitivity to the material is “triggering.”

    • Heck, when I taught intro to ethics at UNC, I spent a couple of classes discussing “why secular ethics”. This was mostly to avoid complaints and confusion from people for whom ethics meant roughly Christianity. But I eased them into it. I don’t know that it was horrible distressing for any of them, but if the very idea of secular ethics is completely alien, indeed, *wrong, it’s going to take some work on the instructors part to get them into it.

      That’s just part of teaching. I’d i were going to teach more distressing stuff, I would need to put more work into facilitating the learning.

    • Arouet

      So what’s the lesson to draw from this? That people who oppose “trigger warnings” are disingenuous monsters seizing on a term that seems to reflect the very essence of the oversensitive millennial to further their own bigoted narratives? Or that people who support “trigger warnings” have made the term itself their hill to die on rather than the totally defensible and mostly unobjectionable-to-the-public idea of warning people about offensive or upsetting content before introducing it.

      I would argue both.

      • I don’t really know anyone who insists on the specific term “trigger warning”. Many of the people I read who do use them prefer “content warning” or “CW” these days. I hear the terms “trigger” and “trigger warning” a lot more from opponents than proponents.

        The argument you’ve been making in this thread reminds me of the situation with “global warming”. It’s both accurate and specific, but it encourages Inhofe-style “look, a snowball, so much for global warming” attacks, and it gives people the inaccurate idea that the only effect is hotter temperatures. So “climate change” was adopted, but it’s inconsistently used, and the new attack is that those silly global warming alarmists have changed the name because anyone can tell it’s snowing outside, so much for global warming.

        I think any term chosen by advocates of trigger/content warnings will either not be successful or will quickly become equally as toxic as “trigger warning”.

  • larrybob

    Just for some context about UofC: Last year they put up banners of famous deceased professors and graduates of the University around campus. Pretty distinguished lot: Fermi, Levi, Bellow, Bork…Bork?! It’s not as if the University is hurting for distinguished associates in the law field, but Bork? Like the letter, it’s a dog-whistle to those who care. I was hoping that they would balance out the choice with a banner for Ramsey Clark, but I never saw it.

  • a_paul_in_mtl

    It seems to me that dealing with potential triggers in students is simply good teaching.

    A ten year old child I know was excused from watching the first Harry Potter movie in class because the opening scenes were an over-the-top depiction of child abuse. Since this boy had been traumatized by an abusive father who often yelled at him and insulted him, it was judged that the experience of watching the movie would not be good for his learning, and that he could learn what he needed to in some other way.

    Anyone want to come and say “well, he should just have just sucked it up, and if he got so upset he would have to leave the class for the rest of the day, tough”? Anyone?

    Or perhaps some will say “yeah, but we coddle ten year olds. College students should be made of sterner stuff.”

    Perhaps, but the principle’s the same. When I was thirty two years old a gunman shot several people in the building where I was working and we were on lockdown for a couple of hours before being escorted out by armoured cops waving guns at us. Shortly afterwards I had to leave a screening of “Romero” because it involved scenes of people being shot and held at gunpoint, among other atrocities.

    Was that weakness on my part? Should I have just sucked it up? If this had been part of a college course, should I have been told “well, that’s just tough for you, isn’t it?”

    Seriously, people don’t think through the arguments they are making.

    • a_paul_in_mtl

      Of course, people will have differing approaches to this issue. “Trigger warnings” is one. There may be others that other instructors would prefer to use. But I do hope nobody is actually saying that we should be completely insensitive to the issue, and that any flexibility or accommodation is wrong.

    • Origami Isopod

      Seriously, people don’t think through the arguments they are making.

      Here, maybe not. But some people absolutely would have said you should have sucked it up. Because they’re assholes.

      • Origami Isopod
        • Because people only belong in college if they don't have emotional reactions to anything.

  • elm

    Here’s Scalzi’s take on the letter. He’s also an alum from Chicago, by the way, which very much informs his take.

    • I really liked one of the comments, which included a description of various misconceptions of college that arriving first-year students can have, among them:

      They may be expecting Hollywood New England Private College (even though they are going to the Possum Droppings Community College branch of Big Square State U).

  • cdevine

    Oh, I think I will answer the phone the next time the U of C calls. Usually when I do, I say I’ll give money when they burn down the business school and dig up Milton Friedman to drive a wooden stake through his alleged heart. The callers are mostly undergrads, and I typically get giggles from them. This garbage opens up more better snark.

    My cohorts were flaming liberals, despite us being there at the same time as a Podhoretz spawn and probably overlapping with David Brooks. The only right wing crap I ever encountered was from the b-school.

  • beckya57

    I’m a Chicago alum. Nothing about this surprises me: the arrogance and borderline hostility towards the student body (and the recipients of this letter aren’t even students yet!) are all too familiar. And they wonder why they lag other “elite” schools in both donations and legacy admissions. At least these incoming students are finding out right at the beginning how much the administration values their opinions (*sarcasm*).

    • calling all toasters

      +1,000,000

  • No Longer Middle Aged Man

    First off, fuck the UoC administration for trying to stick their noses into decisions that should be the prerogative of individual instructors.

    More generally, trigger warnings and safe spaces are about as pervasive as the war on Christmas. Does some dumb and obnoxious stuff along these lines occur? Sure, but with about 2% of the frequency of all the dumb and obnoxious vapors about them. It’s like shark attacks (rare but gruesome so get lots of attention) than to fatal auto accidents (just the daily grind).

    Congrats to the UoC administration that they are so desperate for attention that they’ve become the Bill O’Reilly of academia.

  • altofront

    I’m in favor of trigger warnings, and I’ve used generic ones for years. I do wonder, though, about the line between triggers and content that makes students uncomfortable, particularly if they frame that discomfort in religious terms.

    • I’ve struggled, ever since “trigger warnings” hit my radar, to imagine how they might somehow come up in a mathematics class. But now I’ve been prompted to remember a case sometime in the last millennium. I was teaching a First-Year Seminar that included a bit of baby probability, to which end I one day brought in a bunch of playing cards, only to find that one of my students was (on her account, which I didn’t doubt) forbidden by her religious scruples to have any contact with. Obviously I had no difficulty in modifying that day’s activities (which weren’t, in any case, even a simulation of gambling-as-an-activity, except to the inevitable extent that much successful gambling with cards apparently depends on the analysis of finite probability spaces).

      A few years later, I took note of the fact that high school textbooks (in Massachusetts) no longer called dice “dice”; they were renamed (and presumably still are) “number cubes”. In that case I assumed but never confirmed that religious scruples were, again, the cause of the change.

  • Nick056

    Noted Trump supporter Jill Filopovic wrote an excellent piece against trigger warnings two years ago:

    Which doesn’t mean that individual students should not be given mental health accommodations. It’s perfectly reasonable for a survivor of violence to ask a professor for a heads up if the reading list includes a piece with graphic descriptions of rape or violence, for example. But generalized trigger warnings aren’t so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism: they’re a low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues. Even better is demanding a trigger warning – that identifies you as even more aware, even more feminist, even more solicitous than the person who failed to adequately provide such a warning.

    There is real harm in utilizing general trigger warnings in the classroom. Oberlin College recommends that its faculty “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals”. When material is simply too important to take out entirely, the college recommends trigger warnings. For example, Oberlin says, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a great and important book, but:

    … it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.

    The Oberlin college document she references generated controversy and was eventually tabled:

    And criticism flowed in from outside Oberlin as well, with outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the New Republic questioning the policy’s implications for academic freedom and for the liberal arts, so central to Oberlin’s mission. Now, Oberlin has tabled the policy, pending additional faculty input.

    Liberals who act as though trigger warnings were only ever advocated in their most benign format are ignoring this recent history. Policies like Oberlin’s could have created a top-down culture whereby instructors faced pressure to scrutinize their syllabi to determine whether potentially triggering material should really be included, and perhaps faced additional formal and informal pressure to keep their materials anodyne. But, of course, triggers are individual. There’s nothing wrong with trigger warnings as part of an individual program of accommodation for someone with PTSD. But why would a syllabus include subject-matter specific trigger warnings for a general class environment where no one may have a stress-inducing disability? Why would we ask that? (And this doesn’t touch on whether the presentation and discussion of course material, in addition to its selection, should also be subject to standing accommodations even where no one in class has a related disability.)

    Not everybody needs to be up in arms about trigger warnings. Clearly, a lot of liberals would like to not merely advocate them, but paint them in the most benign light possible, as viewer advisories. But Filopovic is right that the push for warnings is tinged with left-wing politics of a certain stripe. It’s not primarily about helping PTSD sufferers, although it borrows language from that subject area. It’s, as practiced, about “performative” politics, making sure any course material or related discussion centers the feminist, anti-racist, colonialist critical perspective by signaling to everyone in class that the professor knows those elements are addressed in the work, finds them worth a warning, and will give them their due in class discussion. In other words, it’s political. Watching liberals pretend like a fundamentally left-wing approach to shaping curricula is simply a species of disabilities accommodation, and what’s the harm, is by turns amusing and frustrating.

    • sharculese

      ” It’s not primarily about helping PTSD sufferers,”

      Here’s the thing. Anyone who frames this as being only about PTSD sufferers is getting it wrong. Just straight up wrong. Insisting that we have to wait until a potential stressor rises to the level of being diagnosable before we take it into account is just… rude. It’s an aggressive rejection of basic human empathy.

      Here’s an example from my own life: A couple of years ago I was on a WWII kick, and as part of it read Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. For those not familiar with it, it includes a 20 page tangent where Grossman, who was embedded with the Red Army and one of the first journalists to see the camps, goes into great detail on the journey from cattle car to gas chamber. As a Jewish person who has personally dealt with anti-Semitism, by the end of it I almost punched a hole in the wall.

      I didn’t know that was coming. If I had known, I still would have read it because it’s an amazing work of art, but yeah, I wish I would have had a heads up that this one part was gonna get pretty raw so I could steel myself for it.

      Everyone has experiences that aren’t yours. That’s called being part of society. Some of them are things that lead to distinct pain for reasons we can’t control. Being willing to ease people in to dealing with things is basic human decency. Objecting to it is beng an asshole.

      • a_paul_in_mtl

        “Everyone has experiences that aren’t yours. That’s called being part of society. Some of them are things that lead to distinct pain for reasons we can’t control. Being willing to ease people in to dealing with things is basic human decency.”

        It really says something, doesn’t it, that the idea that people ought to be decent and considerate towards other people is so politically controversial.

        • Nick056

          It really says something, doesn’t it, that the idea that people ought to be decent and considerate towards other people is so politically controversial.

          This is the whole problem. Is Jill Filopovic somebody who thinks you shouldn’t be “decent and considerate” toward people? No. Am I? Of course not. But people have convinced themselves that they have unique access to the politics of decency and consideration, and people who disagree with them have … the leftovers, I guess, and are just indecent and inconsiderate.

          It’s been an amazing tailspin to watch.

          • sharculese

            I’m not speaking about either of you in general, that would b a dumb thing to do based on a single thing. But on this subject,t to be blunt, no I don’t think you or her are behaving with decency and considerate, and I do think you’re being petty assholes. Smart, well-meaning people can be wrong. It happens.

            And if I think you’re being an asshole, I’m going to call you an asshole. I laid out my argument, and if you don’t think the pain my cultural heritage can cause me is worthy of consideration, it’s on you to explain why.

            • Nick056

              I’m sorry you had a rough time reading parts of that book. I briefly volunteered at USHMM (not long after the anti-semitic attack that killed a black security guard). It’s an incredibly raw experience. and none of us is able to “step outside ourselves” to read something like that. It just so happens that, often, the more a person is white, male, able-bodied, straight, etc., the less of a problem that is, because he can more comfortably inhabit himself in all contexts. And if you had gotten a warning, that would have been great. And to the extent trigger or content warnings are about giving people basic consideration, I don’t think most of the objectors really have a problem with that effort.

              But I don’t think they should be called “trigger warnings” unless they are related to PTSD triggers and I don’t think a school should mandate them in class, because professors ought to have discretion about how they select and approach course material. I do get the benefit of the warning. I was at a poetry reading once, years ago, where the poet warned the audience the poem had the word “columbine” (the flower). I don’t think anybody wondered why he would choose to say that. But if he had been mandated to itemize all the difficult particulars of his reading prior to starting each poem (many of which dealt with the suicide of his own brother) I think it would have diminished the effect of the poems. And I have a similar attitude toward content warnings. I don’t object to them per se but I think there is a point beyond which people cannot abstract all the painful parts of a work for a general audience, may have reasons not to wish to do so, and should not be required to do so in an academic context.

      • Nick056

        Here’s the thing. Anyone who frames this as being only about PTSD sufferers is getting it wrong.

        But everyone knows and understands that this specific term-of-art, as stepped pyramids points out, was pulled directly from the language surrounding PTSD and related syndromes. And its use or advocacy in the classroom creates the appearance that people are okay collapsing the distinction between “upset” and “triggered.” In fact, one of the primary concerns with these warnings is that they do muddy that line. A friend about the word “triggering” a couple years ago, “that word used to mean something.” A lot of the pushback is more about the abuse of the term “triggering” than giving content warnings.

        • sharculese

          And in the same post he pointed out that a lot of teachers have moved from “trigger” to “content.” Which sure, I’m fine with. Not being a dick is more important to me than the specific terminology.

          But if that’s the battle you wanted to fight, why… didn’t you lead with that?

    • JL

      It’s not primarily about helping PTSD sufferers

      Yes, it is. Speaking as a grad student with PTSD who has participated in way more of these arguments than I care to (and once had some asshole professor on an academic forum, when I explained my story, which involves my experience as a protest medic, tell me that I was too self-absorbed to be a medic). The fact that you can come up with a single example of people taking it in a problematic direction – and sheesh, a lot of the anti-PC crowd acts like Oberlin is the only institution in the country – doesn’t change the larger issue.

      But why would a syllabus include subject-matter specific trigger warnings for a general class environment where no one may have a stress-inducing disability?

      Two reasons that I can think of. One is that trauma-related psychiatric issues are both fairly common (and the traumas that tend to produce them also tend to more commonly happen to young people, which seems relevant to a college environment) and not always diagnosed (because mental healthcare access in this country sucks, because minors who have been sexually assaulted or otherwise traumatized can’t access much care without their parents finding out, because a lot of trauma survivors are nervous about telling their story someone whose sympathy they aren’t sure of). Another is that it’s an attempt to implement a social model of disability – a model that, among other things, tries to make spaces as universally accessible as possible from the get-go, rather than focusing on individuals needing to request accommodations to get by in inaccessible spaces.

      That said, I do strongly support students being able to request trigger warnings as accommodations through the disabilities office, both because it makes things work for people with unusual triggers, and because in the course of these arguments I’ve learned that a lot of academics are enormous assholes who will treat students with mental health issues like shit unless forced to do otherwise by some university office.

      • Nick056

        That said, I do strongly support students being able to request trigger warnings as accommodations through the disabilities office, both because it makes things work for people with unusual triggers, and because in the course of these arguments I’ve learned that a lot of academics are enormous assholes who will treat students with mental health issues like shit unless forced to do otherwise by some university office.

        And that’s really what needs to happen. People with disabilities need to benefit from prominent and easy-to-navigate programs that give them access to the accommodations they need. And if professors want to make trigger warnings or content warnings on their syllabus, that’s fine. But there shouldn’t be an institutional expectation that they do so, because that ought to be up to the instructor. The social model of disability, brought into this context, could create an expectation that professors catalogue their material for potentially triggering content and advise students of that content specifically, probably at the outset of the course. That’s not reasonable, especially in the context of pedagogic freedom. The key to accommodations is making sure institutions are responsive to individual needs so that people get assistance they need to perform well when they’re otherwise capable of doing so. And there’s nothing wrong (of course!) with a general “come see me” policy, or a note that a course has challenging material. I think it’s sort of caricature to say opponents of trigger warnings take that position. But it crosses a line when, as at Oberlin, it could create a top-down culture of scrutinizing course material for potential specific triggers.

        As to whether there are other examples, Oberlin’s real, it’s a college, it got a lot of attention when it proposed and then withdrew this policy. It’s a perfect example of why people are cautious about trigger warnings.

        • Hmmm. I don’t agree. I think, as with disabilities affecting sensory or cognitive faculties, we should build in accessibility to some degree while encouraging responsive accommodation for more idiosyncratic situations. And every instructor should be thinking a lot about how students interact with the material.

          So, if you are going to show films of violence, c’mon, a warning makes sense and is super easy to incorporate. When discussing whether “genocide” is the correct term for the massive death by illness of native populations in the Americas, put some thought into the fact that people might get freaked out in a number of directions and how to handle it. Etc.

          • Nick056

            I think it really, as with so much else, depends upon the specific nature of the accommodation. Ilya Somin writes that he gives an anti-trigger warning, sort of a broad and generic warning about the material in his con law course. And if you’re showing a video with violence in it, sure, warn people first, even perhaps let someone excuse themselves. But as Somin puts it:

            As usually understood in the academic world, trigger warnings are specific, detailed statements indicating exactly what type of potentially traumatic material will be taught, and on what date. My statement doesn’t do either of these. It doesn’t fully enumerate all the different painful issues we are going to cover (e.g. – the version above does not mention homophobia and racial violence, even though these actually are part of the course), and it doesn’t warn students about exactly when we are going to cover them. In addition, trigger warnings generally carry the implication – even if unstated – that the material in question is going to be handled in a hypersensitive manner, so as to avoid (or at least minimize) any possible discomfort.

            Your mileage may vary, especially with regard to the last sentence. But I think such a warning is fine if the professor wants to create it, or if a student requests it, but should probably not be the institutional expectation. It’s not about toughening people up, or promoting a free-for-all. It’s about letting an instructor decide whether and how to tag and catalogue his or her course material, and not instilling students with the expectation that they will be forewarned of all potential triggers.

            A crucial component of what I see, though, involves professors who are trained to be responsive to student needs and and alert that students who are missing class, seem not to be doing well, etc., may benefit from accommodation.

            • As usually understood in the academic world

              Doing a lot of work there. Esp with the implication discussed in the second paragraph.

              I’m not convinced at all. Students do like detailed syllabi in advance. Teachers hate doing that. If you are doing it, the marginal effort of flagging the big things are easy, though again, I’d like to see rather more empirical evidence that this is what’s requested routinely.

    • a_paul_in_mtl

      Okay…

      1) The argument/implication (which has been made by a number of other people commenting here) that “you can’t criticize attacks on trigger warnings because not all who deride them as PC coddling of lefty crybabies are actually Republicans or Trump supporters” is utterly irrelevant to the tone/substance of the derision these people are expressing. I find this derision to be indecent for reasons I explain in an above comment (posted at 3:21 PM), and I really don’t care what specific ideological grounds are used to explain away a case someone is making for a contemptuous negation of other human beings and their struggles and how that’s supposed to make for a good learning environment for all students.

      2) If there are examples of the concept of “trigger warnings” actually being used to silence points of view for political reasons, then that is a problem to be addressed. However, I know of no real-life examples of that happening, let alone do I see any evidence of such misuse being widespread. The potential misuse of a pedagogical tool is an argument for vigilance against its misuse, not against its use.

      • Origami Isopod

        The argument/implication (which has been made by a number of other people commenting here) that “you can’t criticize attacks on trigger warnings because not all who deride them as PC coddling of lefty crybabies are actually Republicans or Trump supporters”

        It’s kind of like arguing that there’s no racism on the left, so you can’t criticize Jacobin writers for being racist.

  • libarbarian

    Oberlin College tried to go further. In late 2013, the college created a new policy for dealing with sexual assault and related issues. It recommended faculty “understand triggers, avoid unnecessary triggers, and provide trigger warnings,” and to strongly consider making “triggering” material optional. If faculty chose to continue including triggering material, the policy recommended that they explain why they did so.

    It seems to me that, for an untenured prof with no job security, this would have amounted to a “mandate” and put him/her at risk of losing his/her job if a student complained that he/she was triggered by something they were not warned about?

    http://www.vox.com/2015/9/10/9298577/trigger-warnings-college

    Trigger warnings are just a more overt example of a trend faculty members already fear: that making students uncomfortable is a route to student complaints, and student complaints have more power than they used to.

    Precisely.

    • You mean like sexual harassment complaints? I’m very glad that they have more power than they used to!

      (I raise this to make the point that you can’t just throw out a blanket complaint about the “power of student complaints”. It might be a good thing, overall! There might be some bad bits but we need to tease them out explicitly.)

      • Steve LaBonne

        Yes, we far too easily forget the shit professors used to be able to do with impunity.

        • And how some long for those days to come again.

          • libarbarian

            Doh! You found me out. My only reason for disagreeing with you on anything is because of my long term master plan to get back to where I could be a bigoted sexual predator with impunity.

            And I would have gotten away with it to, if it wasn’t for you meddling kids…

            • I’d have thought you’d have approved of meddling with kids!

              Sometimes it’s really hard to keep up around here.

            • That wasn’t directed at you specifically. But it’s important to note that it really is the case that a chuck of the opposition to trigger warning do seem to be people who are comfortable with the idea that ogling attractive students in classes is a “perk” of the job., etc.

              Student empowerment is generally a good thing, even if there are some annoying or bad bits. (Students as consumers entitled to a grade is not great. Students as learners entitled to good teaching is pretty good.)

      • a_paul_in_mtl

        Yes, the idea that students being able to complain – and have their complaints heard – is inherently a bad thing is problematic. And feedback about how a prof could have better handled the broaching of painful subjects in class is not a bad thing.

        Now, that doesn’t mean it would be OK to fire a prof for “making some students uncomfortable”. But that is not an argument against the concept of profs using “trigger warnings”. One could argue against an implied mandate from the administration, but on the other hand, suggesting it as a way of defusing potential problems (and complaints) isn’t necessarily a bad thing either.

        Even if you did argue against administrative guidelines recommending the use of “trigger warnings”, it would not be grounds for a blanket condemnation of “trigger warnings”, which in fact were used long before the term “trigger warnings” became current. Because blanket condemnations such as that issued by the Dean of the University of Chicago have nothing to do with dealing with actual problems, and everything to do with being “anti-PC”- it is all about political symbolism, for the benefit of right-wing donors.

  • a_paul_in_mtl

    “Look at me, the letter says, I oppose political correctness. And that’s pretty much all it says.”

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/08/26/university-of-chicago-s-p-c-crackdown-is-really-about-keeping-right-wing-donors-happy.html

  • leftwingfox

    I mean, it doesn’t help that the channers, redditors and other assorted scum now use “triggered” to mean “jimmies rustled”.

  • Pingback: Are TRIGGER WARNINGS and SAFE SPACES Destroying Free Speech? (Spoiler: No.) - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money()

  • Well, I guess this is about to go off the front page, but I guess I’m not surprised no one has mentioned Ovid. There are plenty of horror stories out there in places that usually have “even the liberal” added to their name, but vague enough that “obfuscatory” is probably an accurate description.

    eta: Damn! Too slow.