Trigger Warning! Literary Masterpieces under Fire from Campus Speech and Thought Police

May 19, 2014

By Matthew Hurtt at United Liberty

College administrators, professors, and even students are increasingly cracking down on what they deem “offensive” speech that may make other students uncomfortable, from designating tiny “free speech zones” on campus to forcing right-of-center commencement speakers to withdrawto now possibly issuing “trigger warnings” for popular literature.

On a number of college campuses, students have requested that professors issue warnings when introducing them to sensitive topics, either in literature or in class presentations.

From the New York Times account:

Should students about to read “The Great Gatsby” be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart” — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools.

Academics are split on this issue. Some professors believe it is their responsibility to provoke thought and discussion, even if it means using “offensive” content in the process, while others support policies that restrict access to potentially offensive content.

Greg Lukianoff is the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit organization that fights free speech restrictions on university campuses. Of this trend, Lukianoff said, “Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives. It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.”

Lukianoff published a book in late 2012 titled Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, which details many of the First Amendment battles being waged on university campuses.

This growing desire to be sheltered from diverse opinions, particularly in academia, is having a dramatic effect on American debate.

Though these warnings are billed as an attempt to prepare students for potentially offensive content, there’s a much darker effort afoot here: further censoring speech to the point where it takes some topics out of the realm of debate and discourse altogether. The notion that one could shut down speech with which they disagree simply by labeling it offensive will have a chilling effect on public discourse.

“If I were a junior faculty member looking at [a mandated “trigger warning” policy] while putting my syllabus together, I’d be terrified,” said Oberline professor Marc Blecher, who has been an outspoken critic of these kinds of warnings. “Any student who felt triggered by something that happened in class could file a complaint with the various procedures and judicial boards, and create a very tortuous process for anyone.”