Trigger Warnings: Dumbing Down the Campus

(Photo Illustration: NRO)

Last fall, my friend Wendy Kaminer appeared on a Smith College panel — held in New York City, not on Smith’s campus in Northampton, Mass. — called “Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts.” From the transcript, it appears the panel discussion proceeded as the better academic panels do, with spirited, civil disagreement. Kaminer led the charge — as she always does — for free speech, challenging the audience to speak (and think) freely. And when it comes to free speech, Kaminer practices what she preaches. She self-censors for no one.

When the Smith College newspaper published the transcript, however, it contained the following, absurd statement: “Trigger/Content Warnings: Racism/racial slurs, ableist slurs, antisemitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence, references to antisemitic violence.” As Kaminer pointed out in her Washington Post piece about the incident, the paper then went on to edit the transcript itself by removing the allegedly “triggering content.” For example, it replaced Smith president Kathleen McCartney’s joking comment, “We’re just wild and crazy, aren’t we?” with  “We’re just wild and [ableist slur], aren’t we?”

Those are trigger warnings — declarations designed to prevent people from reading or viewing content they don’t like, declarations that are actually used to censor even the mildest forms of non-politically-correct free speech. And, apparently, they’re more popular than ever.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported on the results of perhaps the first systematic effort to measure how many professors actually use trigger warnings in their classes. Those results are sobering:

Despite widespread fears that trigger warnings hurt classroom discussion and threaten academic freedom, many college instructors appear [to] be adopting them on their own, without prodding from administrators or students, a new survey’s findings suggest.

The online survey, of members of the College Art Association and the Modern Language Association, found that more than half of respondents had at least once voluntarily provided students with such warnings, which involve advance notice that instructional material might elicit a troubling emotional response.

To be clear, these professors are embracing censorship even without the prompting of their academic institutions. Less than 1 percent of respondents indicated that their schools required such a warning. Even worse, professors were adopting warnings without so much as a single request from a student at their school. The only silver lining in this dark cloud is that the survey’s response rate was low enough to leave questions about the true extent of the problem. Still, as the Chronicle noted, it “provides a sense of the frequency of trigger warnings.”

These professors aren’t self-censoring. They’re doing their best to censor others.

An academic critic of trigger warnings called this “self-censorship.” I disagree. These professors aren’t self-censoring. They’re doing their best to censor others, to permanently adjust the terms of the debate to their favored words, their favored books, and their favored ideology. And they are doing so on their own, without the prompting of aggrieved students.

Nor are they compassionate. Joan Benlin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, gave the trigger-warning respondents the benefit of the doubt, saying that she was “struck” by the respondents’ “genuine feeling for the students.” Yet modern campus activists are hardly fragile flowers, wilting in the face of icky words. In fact, their alleged fragility is simply a tool of ideological warfare, a method of building sympathy — of making their demands palatable to a public that otherwise shuns censorship and intolerance. “Fragile” students don’t form political movements, tote around mattresses as works of “performance art,” engage in civil disobedience, or shriek at the top of their lungs for the destruction of their ideological enemies. “Fragile” students don’t file multiple lawsuits and campus complaints, seeking to bring down everyone from fellow feminists to college presidents. “Fragile” students don’t take to the pages of the Huffington Post and accuse free-speech advocates like Kaminer of “an explicit act of racial violence” for using words a student doesn’t like.

Trigger warnings have nothing to do with compassion and everything to do with power. Indeed, their prevalence is itself a raw exercise of power, a statement to the establishment authorities in higher education that the radicals intend to dictate the terms of debate. The American Association of College Professors — the venerable (and liberal) organization dedicated to defending the academic freedom and other prerogatives of the professors — has called trigger warnings a “threat to academic freedom.” No matter. Radicals do as they wish. And where the radicals reign, even their so-called compassion manifests itself as cruelty and censorship.

– David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.


David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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