Coddling, Or Just Sensitivity To Feelz?

In response to the brilliant Atlantic post by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt decrying the coddling of the American mind, Cornell assistant philosophy prof Kate Manne, a self-described millennial, explains that trigger warnings aren’t coddling at all.

But trigger warnings have been adapted to serve a subtly different purpose within universities. Increasingly, professors like me simply give students notice in their syllabuses, or before certain reading assignments. The point is not to enable — let alone encourage — students to skip these readings or our subsequent class discussion (both of which are mandatory in my courses, absent a formal exemption). Rather, it is to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions. The evidence suggests that at least some of the students in any given class of mine are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma, whether from sexual assault or another type of abuse or violence. So I think the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant.

As she explains, the notion was derived on the internets for returning war veterans suffering from PTSD, and has since devolved to the “trauma” suffered by students who have no diagnosed mental illness (though many seem to confuse their unpleasantness with PTSD) at reading, hearing, seeing, whatever strikes them as distressing.

Criticisms of trigger warnings are often based on the idea that college is a time for intellectual growth and emotional development. In order for this to happen, students must be challenged. And they need to learn to engage rationally with ideas, arguments and views they find difficult, upsetting or even repulsive. On this count, I agree with the critics, and it is in fact the main reason that I do issue warnings.

How’s that for a flipped rationale? Manne’s point is that trigger warnings enable students to prepare for the unpleasant, not avoid it.  Implicit in her justification is that the absence of an opportunity to “prepare” will cause needless distress as students are forced to digest things they find traumatic and offensive. Once warned, they can toughen up and face the difficult task of unpleasant images.

It’s not about coddling anyone. It’s about enabling everyone’s rational engagement.

Nonsense. Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings, any more than it comes with a free pass at ideas or images that any particular special snowflake deems unpleasant. What’s now called “trauma” used to be called Tuesday. Bad things happen. They happen to good people and bad people. They happen all the time. They happen without warning.

Any student in need of a trigger warning is a person incapable of dealing with life.  Among the purposes of college is to teach students to transition from childhood to adulthood, to become independent and capable of managing the pressures of life.  One remarkably common stressor is dealing with an array of things that fail to conform to one’s personal happy choices.  It’s coming.

Mr. Lukianoff and Professor Haidt also argue in their article that we shouldn’t give trigger warnings, based on the efficacy of exposure therapy — where you are gradually exposed to the object of a phobia, under the guidance of a trained psychotherapist. But the analogy works poorly. Exposing students to triggering material without warning seems more akin to occasionally throwing a spider at an arachnophobe.

Exposure therapy was offered as an example of how shielding students from the banal realities of life is counterproductive.  But Manne’s analogy, rather than demonstrate the failure of Lukianoff’s and Haidt’s, confirms its propriety.

Students aren’t suffering from pathologic mental illness, such that they require the careful (and expensive) oversight of a psychotherapist. Well, most anyway. Rather, they’ve been nurtured to believe that their slightest twinge of discomfort is tantamount to an entitlement denied.

And that is very much part of the problem, that their hypersensitivity to banal stimuli evokes reactions or panic and fury, necessitating safe rooms with Play Doh and kittens.  How are these students ever going to function in a world that doesn’t give a flying fuck about their feelz?

Essentially, Manne’s defense of trigger warnings comes down to, why not be sympathetic with the fragile teacups and ease them into adulthood rather than “throw a spider at an arachnophobe”?  What harm could it cause?

And indeed, few would argue that children should be subjected to the harshness of an adult’s life, the unpleasantness that will eventually smack them in the face as they leave the comforting womb of academia for the cold, hard world of grownups.

But these aren’t children anymore. These are budding adults, or at least are supposed to be.  College is precisely the time when they are required to put away their childish toys and grow up.  It’s still a remarkably controlled and sheltered environment, where almost none of the stress of adulthood rests on their shoulders, and they are surrounded by others who share their concerns about growing up.

Trigger warnings are enabling a generation of emotional cripples, incapable of facing up to the many and varied stresses that life will dump on them. When the lesson is that no one should have to endure unpleasantness without fair warning, you haven’t taught your children well.

12 thoughts on “Coddling, Or Just Sensitivity To Feelz?

  1. Tim Cushing

    On the whole, I don’t find Manne’s rebuttal to be a slide back into coddling territory. (I do object to the use of the phrase “professors like me,” which, in the absence of any actual evidence, could mean “just her, actually” or “hundreds of like-minded individual.” Not a very useful phrase. I also find her spider analogy inapt, as reading a required book at your own pace isn’t at all like having spiders thrown at you by unknown parties.)

    What she’s suggesting sounds more like an MPAA/ESRB rating system. Movies and games come with ratings that let potential customers know what’s in store for them. Books, however, rarely do. Maybe they do need something like that. Of course, to start instituting one in college, when everyone’s at the age where they can freely purchase R-rated movies or MA-rated games, seems a little overweening, considering everyone should be an adult and able to handle “adult content.”

    And, for that matter, it’s highly unlikely the syllabus will contain anything on par with “A Serbian Film,” “Irreversible” or (on the game side) “Manhunt.” Maybe what she’s looking for is a modified head’s up of what’s found all over the internet.

    ******SPOILER ALERT******
    Contains depictions of domestic violence; drug abuse

    As long as the warnings aren’t be used to excuse unfinished assignments, low grades or to permit students to pick and choose what they’re going to be exposed to, I find very little harm in the idea of a brief content warning. But don’t call it a “trigger warning.” Because doing so just encourages certain people to take their objections to a higher level. And once they do, “professors like [Manne]” will be pushed to adopt a more “coddling” stance.

    1. SHG Post author

      Some people don’t find catering to individualized sensitivities a problem, but rather just a courtesy that costs nothing to offer and makes the world a bit kinder and gentler. These are usually the same people who claim to be allergic to gluten, but they’re not.

      I’m sorry, you were saying?

      MPAA ratings weren’t developed to spare young people unpleasantness, but to provide parents with a means to know whether they should allow their young children to see a movie. Funny how that’s been forgotten over time.

  2. Dan T.

    Slate Star Codex, no friend of social justice warriors in general, did have this defense of trigger warnings here (and does put “content warnings” in his own posts):

    [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

  3. EH

    Her argument might make a bit more sense (though I still disagree) in the limited context of first-semester courses. While I still find it a teeth-gritting concession, “this is what the rest of college is like; start getting used to it” might make sense for an intro class.

    I note, therefore, the complete LACK of any such limitation in her post. If she’s doing this in senior seminars, that is a much larger problem.

    1. SHG Post author

      In fairness, she offers something of a middle ground, not the vehement defense of the feelz, but also not the recognition that pandering to feigned hypersensitivity perpetuates the mistaken belief that it’s all about the little darling’s feelz.

  4. mb

    “It’s not about coddling anyone. It’s about enabling everyone’s rational engagement.”

    How can a “teacher” be so stupid as to not know the difference between telling people that you’re not coddling them and actually not coddling them? Issuing warnings about content implies that such warnings are necessary, and issuing them selectively implies that there is goodthink and crimethink, and that all good teachers know the difference. The rest of her argument is just to conflate trigger warnings with the long standing practice letting people know that your story is gross or that your jokes are dirty. Prior to trigger warnings, this was never backed with any claim that people are all eggshells.

    I truly pity her students, and I grade her essay F-.

    1. SHG Post author

      Manne offered a telling twit to me:

      Common decency? If you had realized she was the universal arbiter of common decency, that would change everything. Sheesh.

      When you exist in the isolation of the Academy (particularly humanities), this is the sort of mush that passes for thought.

  5. Troutwaxer

    I think I have to disagree with you on the “mental illness” part. Many young people today are spoiled, coddled, and have otherwise been failed by parents who have not managed to teach their children that society is a complex place that hosts many kinds of unpleasantness, including disagreements with people from other genders, cultures and races, all of which must somehow be resolved pleasantly and politely, with a firm eye on actual evidence. Perhaps it’s not so much an “illness” as the mental equivalent of an undeveloped immune system. Maybe “weakness” is a better word… Regardless of what you call it, the thing exists now (I don’t think our generation suffered from the problem) and needs to be addressed somehow for the improved mental health of the student.

    The one trigger warning any college student should receive is “We will discuss things that disturb you throughout the next four years. You are adults now. If you get butthurt because you can’t handle disturbing facts, find someplace else to spend your time.”

  6. Fubar

    From a recent faculty resolution at a trade school just down the yellow brick road from a highly esteemed university:

    Our students must be on their guard,
    Lest their psyches be injured and scarred.
    Therefore we endorse
    Prepending each course —
    Trigger warning: mathematics are hard!

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