Phi Beta Cons

Why Trigger Warnings?

Peggy Noonan may have been too generous in her assessment

A week ago Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the absurd lengths to which students go in favoring  “trigger warnings,” which alert them to material that might be painful or offensive. She cited a column in the Columbia University student newspaper. According to the authors,  a Columbia student had  objected to reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses because they involve violence and rape, and this student had experienced sexual assault.

Noonan told this generation to grow up. Life isn’t easy and if they cower before literature they will cower before life. (Noonan’s article is behind a paywall, but George Leef summarizes it here.)

But I’m not sure that Noonan accurately identified the trigger-warning problem. I don’t think it’s due to over-sensitive students. Clue: One unhappy student suggested that they read a Toni Morrison novel instead of Ovid. Toni Morrison? Her novel Beloved is about slavery, murder, guilt, anger, and more. It is painful for anyone to read, assault victim or not.

My suspicion is that trigger warnings come from interest groups composed of faculty and students. They want to disparage and excise from the curriculum ideas and words they disagree with.

Clue: Last year, Jesse Saffron reported on a panel discussion about free speech at UNC-Chapel Hill. The student panelists (selected by faculty) all favored trigger warnings. And they “were all leftist ‘progressives’ more passionate about ‘social justice’ and supporting an offended campus constituency than championing free speech.” I think that we should look in that direction for the reasons behind trigger warnings.

Jane S. ShawJane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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