Trigger Warnings and the Adult Conversation About Them

You don’t need to read The Atlantic’s “How Trigger Warnings are Hurting Mental Health on College Campuses” to know what it says. It covers very little new ground and much of it is the same wrong and pseudo-scientific garbage that has been circulating around this topic for years. The only thing it adds to the discussions is that literally infantilizing picture of a toddler that constitutes the cover shot. If all copies of it were burned, there would be no change in our understanding of the issue.

I’m not going to take the time to go through it. There’s no point. The core argument, that the end goal of therapy is to allow patients to face their triggers, has embedded in it three swift rebuttals that reveal it as bankrupt, if nominally correct. First, the issue of “end goal” addresses nothing about the interim period and lapses that do occur. Second, it is emphatically against the ethical tenants of professional psychiatry to trigger people without warning—it violates the notion of informed consent. Third, professors, even in the uncommon instance they are trained psychiatrists, are not the proper authority to be administering therapy. It is with this in mind that you should summarily dismiss this line of thought.

The adult table is actually having a fairly productive conversation about trauma, trigger warnings, free speech, and academia. This does not include Laura Kipnis (Freud justifies sleeping with my students), Jack Halberstadt (Freud justifies me ignoring intersectionality organizing), the authors of the aforementioned Atlantic piece (Professors should play therapist with their charges), Jonathan Chait (I can’t tell the difference between free speech a and moderated venue), and the rest of the pantheon of shrill objectors. The results are a fairly clear path forward, and one that is not so different than best practices currently employed by good teachers.

The Trigger Warning Myth (Aaron R. Hanlon)

This piece ably lays out the proper context trigger warnings come up in: preparing students to deal with challenging material. There is a fair amount in this that directly rebuts The Atlantic piece, but here is the crux of the matter:

The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.

Professional judgement will become a theme.

My Students Need Trigger Warnings—and Professors Do Too (Aaron R. Hanlon)

Hanlon, interestingly enough, identifies the case that launched this to national spectacle as bad teaching. A professor assigned Ovid, taught it for the language to the exclusion of content, and then dismissed concerns about content. Regardless of what those concerns were, this is telling students not to pursue a line of thinking. For something which is supposedly about thought and exchange, this is curious. But Hanlon centers in on the many ways the professor failed his student:

These—the details of teaching—are the most important details of this story because they describe those moments in which the instructor in question might have taken a few extra steps beyond the “beauty of language and the splendor of the imagery” to engage students in a discussion of the historical context and the trauma of Ovid’s writing. These are the moments after class or during office hours when a professor can listen receptively to a student who was traumatized by the material and the class discussion, who might not have been comfortable sharing her thoughts in front of the class, and who might, yes, need a referral to campus health professionals. These are the moments when professors can tip our hands and explain to students the value of teaching and learning and discussing material that nevertheless unmoors us.

Let me be plainer: maybe we could consider the possibility that the professor in question was an unprofessional dick—a problem we might note isn’t solved by a trigger warning, but rather precluded by it.

Campus PC Panic is Getting Ridiculous (Sean Trainor)

The tagline for this piece is a good deal of what you need to know about it. “A professor’s job is not to surprise, humiliate or traumatize students—but you wouldn’t know it from the backlash.” The piece flirts with condescension at the end, but even that is a good point: that the Boomers who are worried about P.C. culture were no more staid when they asked campus culture to change for the better, and now millenials are at it again. The talk of “excesses of the left” puts the actual missteps by advocates for trigger-warnings in perspective without making a few decontextualized examples into a full-blown argument.

After all, the people who are promoting these ideas are not, for the most part, trying to stifle free speech; they’re instead trying to create the conditions in which it will flourish. Some of their attempts have, admittedly, been clumsy and excessively punitive. But we should also recognize and respect that many of these campus activists are trying to grapple with a new frontier of bigotry and exclusion — to look beyond the gross legal and institutional prejudice of the Jim Crow, boys-only era of higher education, and instead consider how small, daily, and seemingly innocuous behaviors nevertheless contribute to the present state of racial, gender and class-based exclusion.

The author both diverges from the trigger warning crowd by jettisoning the dubious clinical arguments for trigger warnings but allies with them by arguing that people deserve to know what they’re getting into. This leaves much of The Atlantic piece without anything to hold onto.

Saying Trigger Warnings “Coddle the Mind” Completely Misses the Point (Maddy Myers)

I’m repeating myself by quoting this, but the exasperation and sarcasm are what this line of thought deserve:

This assertion that classroom discussions are a “good way to help students” lacks a citation. Although “exposure therapy” worked for me, personally, that’s probably because a mental health professional was involved.

This article does very little to explore how educators might better serve PTSD sufferers; instead, the piece seems to assert that educators shouldn’t have to change a thing.

Yeah. (The piece as a whole is of lower quality than the other ones on this page, but this snippet is how I feel.)

How Trigger Warnings Could Really Help (Alyssa Rosenberg)

This piece fairly and critically explores the difficult balance between accountability for students and respect for them. But especially helpful is a discussion of what a good, academic “content note” might look like:

At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you are aware of particular course material that may be traumatizing to you, I’d be happy to discuss any concerns you may have with it before it comes up in class. Likewise, if you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to such material with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.

I want to jump up and down and scream THIS! Worth emphasizing, as the piece does, that it is different than the laundry-list approach. But it does require professors to be professional enough to have conversations with their students and negotiate fair resolution. As noted above, that may be a significant hurdle for an alarming number of professors.

In Conclusion

I looked for awhile to find a piece that didn’t rely on a simplistic notion of avoidance or handwringing about P.C. culture to justify opposition to trigger warnings. I couldn’t find one, though they might exist. Given how quickly these arguments are dispatched, it seems to me that much of this is just signaling about P.C. culture, and not a legitimate concern for education.

What is equally interesting is how hard it is to find support for the kind of trigger warnings that work on forums being used in the classroom—and that most of the supporters are inexperienced student-activists. This isn’t a surprise if you consider it. Clear, binding rules make a lot of sense in an egalitarian forum where you can hide behind a screen name. But on the flip side, our professors are presumably professionals and should be granted some prerogative. One hopes they are not the abusive trolls that populate online spaces, though the experiences of this debate show that some of them are certainly cut from the same cloth.

I don’t think I’m dipping into false equivalence here when I say the truth lies somewhere in the middle—and closer to the student-activists. Professors really should consider their students’ emotional needs. I would have thought that a given. Even if it isn’t the familiar trigger warnings of the internet, they should lay out expectations clearly and highlight challenges. You cannot deal with the challenging ideas of academia and adulthood without sometimes being overwhelmed by them. Professors should be mindful of that in the same way sports coaches should let their charges drink water and take a stretch break. They certainly should not belittle or dismiss those difficulties.

Content warnings as outlined above could very well foster accountability and exchange. And triggering students in the name of unethical, untested pop-psychology will be far more damaging than any list of hard ideas on a syllabus ever could be.

Systemic Misrepresentation

There is a very good reason you never saw this pre-Columbian map of the United States:

That very good reason is that it is not a pre-columbian map of the United States.

Please, I beg you, if you are going to share a meme, Google it. (To be fair, that would not have done you much good this time. I had a hard time tracking down anything about this.) But if you’re not going to Google it…maybe read it? It says on the map “Approx: 2015”. Columbus, I might remind you, sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

This looks like a decently cool thought experiment. What if the Native Nations had remained sovereign and developed national polities? I lack the requisite expertise to evaluate this particular proposal, but some of it looks plausible. Other parts—like the location of the Ojibwa polity and the consolidation of the Pacific coast tribes—look arbitrary without knowing the provenance of the map. Still, it is a neat thing to consider.

I sincerely recommend falling down the Wiki-wormhole that is reading up on all the tribes there, the people that constituted them, and the languages they spoke. Because while the meme itself is not a map of pre-contact North America—and such a map would be a Eurocentric fiction—you really did not learn enough native history from your formal education. Also, if you don’t find it down the wormhole, the Bering Strait Theory you learned in school was a lie designed to make you think the Natives were newcomers too.

So I totally support the good intentions behind sharing this meme. But pity it’s wrong.

P.S. I promise this blog won’t be all-memes-all-the-time. They will totally keep showing up because, hey, they are good fodder for bad ideas. But tomorrow I’ve got a post about something very different.

A Lesson in Liberal Logic

The week John Stewart left the Daily Show, I had to get rid of my blog.

These aren’t connected in any explicit way. I am changing jobs, and not because Stewart is, and there was content on there that simply wasn’t acceptable for my new position. And as I’ve come to terms with losing my blog (the job is worth it) I’ve been thinking about how to move forward. And as I’ve thought about what parts of that blog I’d like to salvage—and if a new project is the way to go—I started thinking more and more about John Stewart.

Stewart’s legacy is complicated. It is totally possible to view him as a great liberal hero, albeit with qualifacation. It is completely fair to call him the patron saint of liberal smugness. It really comes down to where you situate his long tenure on the Daily Show.

Stewart was always at his best when he picked low hanging fruit. The Bush administration was terrible in a way that transcends politics. It was scandal-ridden, expensive, and by the end one of the least popular presidencies since the end of the Second World War. Going after Bush was easy, but Stewart did it with such panache at a time it was much needed so it felt refreshing.

But it is easy to lose sight that that was his game. Now that a Democrat is in the White House, it has been the Daily Show’s MO to go after Fox News. Again, not hard. They seem so blissfully unaware of the tenants of logical consistency so as to be self-parody without Stewart’s help. Stewart elevated them to a spectacle of conservative folly. In an age where they have the plurality of viewers, that is worth a lot.

But I can’t say he’s elevated liberal discourse.

Liberals have taken his exasperated approach and applied it with not his thought, research, or self-awareness. Stewart’s method works best when you have an open contradiction or an argument that is so at-face wrong it can be dispatched with a zinger. Conservatives have neither a monopoly on those problems nor are they incapable of forming reasonable thoughts.

An example that is percolating through my feed is this meme:

It has the virtue of being both misleading and wrong. And they are different problems in this case.

It is misleading because it only shows discretionary spending. Of 3.5 Trillion dollars spent in 2014, the larger part went to entitlement spending. The difference is important, and it is sometimes correct to separate them out. Entitlement spending is money owed to people by virtue of their circumstance—usually poverty or age. It is appropriate to omit entitlement spending when trying to control for the business cycle. When the economy is bad, more people need the safety net, so spending in the large part increases. It doesn’t tell us anything about the more stable parts of government nor even what the government might look like after the economy has recovered. But, by leaving entitlements out, it distorts how much of your taxes goes to different programs. Call me cynical, but I suspect it was deliberate to make military spending look even bigger than it is.

It is also wrong. SNAP benefits are not discretionary spending. They are Entitlements and thusly not reported in the discretionary part of the Food and Agriculture budget. SNAP comes in a bit north of 4% on this chart—right around the purple wedges—though it doesn’t belong here. It is a bit like talking about the city budget, displaying what the schools spend, and pointing at the resource officer’s wedge to explain what you spend on policing. It misses every point.

Now, it’s true that SNAP still constitutes a small part of Federal expenditures. About 2 cents for every dollar in you pay in federal taxes, for those keeping score at home. And there is virtue in pointing out the big fight lays elsewhere. But it lays soundly in the bigger entitlements, with military spending being a modest fight at the margins. To get a sense, here is the 2010 budget as broken down by Wikipedia. SNAP is about an eighth of the large, greenish wedge “Unemployment/Welfare/Other Mandatory Spending”. Note this is from the height of the Great Recession, so the entitlements are bloated:

2010 Federal Budget, per Wikipedia
2010 Federal Budget, per Wikipedia

I worry liberals have taken the wrong lesson from Stewart. A smart, savvy comedian who lampooned those who very much needed to be lampooned is not the voice of a generation who is poised to start setting the policy agenda. In 2020, the demographic march will make it harder even under current gerrymandering for the Republicans to maintain such a hold on redistricting. By the time 2022 and 2024 rolls around, we’ll be looking at significant realignment in the House and Senate—and the GOP has more than likely seen its last presidency until it reinvents itself. Closer to the present, 2016 and to a lesser extent 2018 will see over-positioned Republicans facing tough elections, much like democrats in 2014. Young liberals will soon be the plurality of voters and we need to get these questions right.

As long as we liberals view conservatism uncharitably—or, more precisely, so long as we’re not careful enough to consider which arguments deserve our attention and which are flat out wrong—we will continue to be flat out wrong in our responses. The budget debate, while not best centered around food stamps, should talk first about entitlements in a wider sense.

While I won’t be above going after low-hanging fruit from conservatives, I do hope to use this new project to put liberal feet to the fire. Trust me, we’ll all be better for it. I’m sad that I lost my old blog, but it is a chance for my political views to grow up some more.

After all, if we really believe that the liberal movement is generally correct, it will withstand hard questions and the occasional admission that, hey, conservatives aren’t always wrong.

P.S. I don’t even know what is going on in this one. I think it is completely wrong, but I can’t figure out how they spliced the data together: