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.