As August closes, students and faculty nationwide are returning to their colleges and universities amidst an ongoing national debate about the state of free expression on campus. Sparked by the cover story of the current issue of The Atlantic, co-authored by FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff and New York University professor and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the current conversation centers in significant part on increasing student sensitivity to materials deemed disagreeable, offensive, upsetting, or “triggering.”
FIRE and groups like the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have warned of the threat to freedom of expression and academic freedom presented by demands for “trigger warnings.” As the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Booksellers for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the National Council of Teachers of English, PEN American Center, and the AAUP concluded in a recent letter: “Trigger warnings threaten not just academic freedom, but also the quality of education students receive.”
In response, proponents of trigger warnings argue, as Lindy West did last week in The Guardian, that trigger warnings “increase engagement and increase accessibility by allowing students with trauma histories to manage their mental health.” But still others, like Fredrik deBoer, counter by pointing out that “there’s no extant medical literature that demonstrates that trigger warnings actually have provide[d] demonstrable relief to the people who suffer [post-traumatic stress disorder]”—and that “when it comes to who gets to invoke them, there is no medical standard that needs to be invoked at all.” As Greg and Haidt argued in The Atlantic:
It’s hard to imagine how novels illustrating classism and privilege could provoke or reactivate the kind of terror that is typically implicated in PTSD. Rather, trigger warnings are sometimes demanded for a long list of ideas and attitudes that some students find politically offensive, in the name of preventing other students from being harmed.
And the debate continues. As deBoer puts it, round and round the trigger warning maypole we go.
The latest point of contention in the increasingly politicized discussion is the refusal of some incoming Duke University freshmen to read Alison Bechdel’s critically acclaimed graphic novel Fun Home, Duke’s (optional) summer reading selection for the Class of 2019. In a Washington Post op-ed this Tuesday, student Brian Grasso explained his rejection of Fun Home, citing his conservative Christian beliefs. Grasso plainly voiced support for trigger warnings, writing, “I believe professors should warn me about such material, not because I might consider them offensive or discomforting, but because I consider it immoral.”
Seizing upon Grasso’s religious conservatism, some commentators asked this week why Grasso and his peers haven’t been called out for their refusal to engage material they found objectionable, implying that demands for trigger warnings from the right are somehow given a pass. But speaking to Inside Higher Ed earlier this week, Greg noted that the Duke students were exhibiting exactly the troubling approach to different ideas that he and Haidt discussed in The Atlantic:
“My overall take is that most people have a desire for freedom from speech [they find objectionable] and that higher education’s goal should be to try to get them out of that way of thinking,” said Lukianoff, who recently wrote a book about the topic, and co-wrote a related cover story for The Atlantic Monthly called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” “If we did a better job of educating people in K-12 to seek out material that they didn’t agree with or that might not work with their worldview, this might not happen.”
FIRE also vigorously defends people’s right to free speech. But Lukianoff said no one at Duke was asking the students to accept only the worldview presented in Fun Home — only to read it, not even for a grade.
As a proudly nonpartisan organization with a long track record of defending the expressive and academic freedom rights of students and faculty from across the political spectrum, FIRE’s concerns about trigger warnings are not contingent upon the beliefs of their proponents.
That’s why in a similar case earlier this summer, FIRE acted quickly after a student at California’s Crafton Hills College demanded trigger warnings on an English course because she was offended by the content of the course’s required readings, including Fun Home. (The student called the graphic novels included on the syllabus—which also included Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, and The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House, by Neil Gaiman—“garbage” and said she wanted them “eradicated from the system.”)
After the college initially signaled that a warning would be added to the course syllabus moving forward, FIRE sent a letter to the college’s president. We cautioned that “[m]andating the use of trigger warnings creates the risk that faculty members may avoid challenging issues altogether—leaving students with a troublingly and profoundly incomplete education.” FIRE’s letter was soon followed by a strong statement along similar lines sent by the coalition of groups referenced above. We were pleased that the college ditched the disclaimer shortly thereafter.
Back to Fun Home and the current back-and-forth. Citing South Carolina lawmakers’ deeply troubling decision to financially punish two state institutions last year for including Fun Home on required reading lists, one commentator implies that “academic watchdog types” were silent when faced with “actual censorship at work, from both the government and university trustees.” But of course, the “academic watchdog types” working here at FIRE strongly and vocally opposed this indefensible decision. Last February, I noted that the lawmakers’ “brazen legislative retribution for academic decision making entirely violates any reasonable understanding of academic freedom.” And as FIRE wrote Governor Nikki Haley shortly afterwards, “The intellectual inquiry of students and faculty at South Carolina’s public institutions of higher learning cannot lawfully be constrained by legislators’ apparent desire to prohibit certain viewpoints from campus … . FIRE opposes attempts by elected officials to stifle discussion at public universities by threatening their funding when they assign texts or spark conversations that the officials dislike.”
My colleagues and I have been remarking to each other this week that we wish last year’s Fun Home controversy had garnered the attention this one has. It wasn’t for lack of trying on our part. But as the conversation about trigger warnings’ efficacy and impact continues to grow more politically polarized, entangled with any number of other partisan debates, FIRE hopes the voices now decrying censorship of the speech they support will join us when we inevitably must defend the speech they oppose.