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Northwestern University President Dismisses Concerns Over Trigger Warnings and Microaggressions

In the wake of the University of Chicago’s message to incoming students about academic freedom, administrators across the country have begun to weigh in on their own campuses to let students know their views on the issue.

At Northwestern University (NU), president Morton Schapiro addressed new students at Monday’s convocation, and took a swipe at concerns over the phenomena of trigger warnings and microaggressions. According to The Daily Northwestern, Schapiro called those who deny the existence of microaggressions “idiots,” saying that microaggressions “cut you to the core.” Schapiro also had sharp words for those with concerns about the effect of trigger warnings on academic freedom and intellectual development. As The Daily Northwestern reports:

Schapiro also criticized those who “conflate” the use of trigger warnings with undermining the First Amendment, saying students should be warned about potentially traumatic content, such as the Holocaust or lynching of black people.

“If they say that … you shouldn’t be warned to prepare yourself psychologically for that, that somehow that’s coddling, those people are lunatics,” Schapiro said.

Of course, Schapiro’s compassion seems a bit selective. No such compassion was on display when NU subjected professor Laura Kipnis to a months-long investigation for writing an article, based on publicly available information, about sex-related issues at NU and beyond. Nor did Schapiro show much concern when NU’s marketing department censored a faculty-published bioethics journal over concerns that an article written by a Syracuse University professor about sexual experiences with a nurse during his rehabilitation after being paralyzed would damage the university’s brand—leading to the imposition of a content review board for the journal and historian Alice Dreger's resignation in protest.

And even putting aside the lack of intellectual engagement exhibited by simply calling those who disagree with him “lunatics” and “idiots,” Schapiro is engaging in blatant hypocrisy. Readers may recall that in 2014, Wendy Kaminer was accused of using an “ableist slur” for using the word “crazy” in an argument about the acceptability of saying taboo words in an intellectual setting. And inclusive language campaigns across the country draw attention to the alleged negative effects of words like “crazy” and “stupid” because they may demean those with mental health issues. So where does that leave Schapiro’s use of “lunatics” and “idiots”? Schapiro is not only deliberately insulting those he disagrees with, but he is apparently doing so in a way that is—in his own worldview—offensive to marginalized groups.

Let’s be clear: compassion and sensitivity are not bad things. But Schapiro should remember that he is chiefly responsible for NU students’ intellectual development, which necessarily includes the ability to confront, grapple with, and discuss difficult and uncomfortable issues. He should not be so quick to dismiss concerns that teaching students to be afraid of learning about terrible events in our human history (to use Schapiro’s own example) is a betrayal of that responsibility.

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