When Stephanie West Allen sent me a link to a Vice post, it seemed to be yet another in those inane efforts to throw as many silly words as possible against the screen to justify trigger warnings in the absence of anything remotely resembling thought. This one, by Ali Jaffe, argues that trigger warnings are “about sensitivity, not censorship.”
She begins by explaining the real significance of the Columbia University kerfuffle over Ovid’s magnum opus, Metamorphoses.
After a class at Columbia University read the poem, one student spoke out about her painful experience with the material as a survivor of sexual assault. Four students on the school’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board penned an op-ed for Columbia’s student newspaper, urging faculty to teach provocative or potentially upsetting material with increased sensitivity.
“As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text… She did not feel safe in the class.”
Yawn. Nothing to see here. Same old stuff. So a delicate teacup wants the world of education to be recreated to make her feel safe. Isn’t that precious? But Jaffe isn’t arguing for mere sensitivity.
“What happens in the rest of students’ lives is affecting their intellectual engagement in the classroom,” says Heather Lindkvist, the Title IX Coordinator and Clery Act Compliance Officer at Dartmouth College. “If we think about what Title IX is about, it’s about ensuring that students have an environment free of hostility; that they feel safe, welcome, and secure on our campuses, and that includes our classes.”
Well, no, that’s not at all “what Title IX is about.” Notably, the link in the quote goes to an advocacy website. Here is a link to the government’s actual Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments explanation, which is about preventing sex discrimination in federally funded higher education programs. It is not about “an environment free of hostility.” It is not about making women “feel safe, welcome, and secure.” It’s about women not being subject to sex discrimination.
But Jaffe, whose background is left unmentioned, isn’t ready to stop there.
The bottom-line is that students have a constitutional right to feel safe in the classroom, and their teachers are in no way adversaries on this. Call it a trigger warning or contextualizing, but opening a preemptive conversation about why something in the classroom is challenging and also why it matters will only serve to advance the interests of both students and professors.
A constitutional right? Did somebody pass a new amendment and not tell me? Nope, no new amendment. This is where the post changes from banal whining to the sort of dangerousness that compels correction.
No, there is no constitutional right to feel safe in the classroom. It is not the bottom line, top line or any line. It doesn’t exist. Some dumbass on the internet decided to call her preferred feelz a constitutional right, and some website named Vice is too short on editors and grown-ups to tell her that she can’t just make shit like this up.
But this otherwise empty intellectual sinkhole of a post reflects a subtle shift in the rhetoric of feelz. Remember not too long ago this was the meme?
At the very least, it placed “rights” against feelz. That’s no longer the case, as the dialogue has since turned the notion of rights, the ones that are actually mentioned in the Constitution, on its head. Now, the discussion is about accusers’ rights to due process, the shifting of the burden of proof off the accuser and onto the accused.
This shift has been subtle, as new “rights” have been manufactured out of whole cloth. Indeed, it’s one of the grave problems with characterizing rights in terms of dignity, as such amorphous high-minded concepts lend themselves to claims of rights for whatever anyone wants them to be.
And it may well be that in an effort not to be needlessly offensive to those who feel deeply hurt by a world that doesn’t make them feel safe, we allow this subtle shift to infiltrate substantive discussions about the relative clash of rights and interests. This is a dangerous slide down the slippery slope, giving credence to claims of feelings as rights rather than reject the rhetoric that would characterize emotional desires as the equivalent.
No, accusers are not entitled to due process, just like the accused. That’s not what due process is for, not how due process works. While creating the appearance of fairness, a word that inherently appeals to most people, it is not an equivalent situation. One points the finger and the other suffers punishment for it. They are not equivalent positions, and there is nothing “fair” about it. Nor should there be.
No, free speech does not end when it touches something that offends you, and you have no equivalent right to silence those who are insensitive to your feelings.
No, you have no right to feel safe. You have no constitutional right. You have no moral right. You have no right at all. You have a right not to be physically harmed, but your feelings, just like everyone else’s, are fair game for bruising. No one says you have to suffer in silence. Don’t like how your Columbia professor uses classic literature that “triggers” your unsafe feelz? Go to Dartmouth. Don’t like how other people on the internets call you stupid? Don’t be stupid. Or turn off the computer. Or only click on links to cute kitteh pics.
Or just toughen up already, you special little snowflakes. But neither you, nor Ali Jaffe, get to make up constitutional rights based upon how deeply you feel. And the fact that Vice would publish such tripe is a disgrace.