Thoughts on Life, Pain, and Trigger Warnings from ‘Unlearning Liberty’

May 21, 2014

We are currently the midst of a debate over the wisdom of “trigger warnings” in university courses: “explicit alerts that the material [students] are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them,” as described by The New York Times. The pitfalls of this approach to instruction have already been pointed out by a number of commentators. One of them is The Guardian’s Jen Doll, who argues that trigger warnings risk discouraging artistic expression by subordinating it to the subjective feelings of certain consumers. With reference to Lois Lowry’s classic novel The Giver, Doll argues that the warnings also risk robbing art of much of its meaning by interfering with its function as a means of coping with pain:

In The Giver, the main character finds there is something more important than a society that’s free from pain. It’s a society in which we feel. That, of course, is the intention of art itself: it’s not meant to shield us from pain so much as offer a vessel through which we can cope, grow and even move past tragedy. If we warn people with a flashing red light that inside great works of literature they are likely to find pain, we do a disservice to the conversations, and the healing, meant to come through the act of reading itself.

In his book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff makes a related argument. Greg notes that pain is a part of life, and that we do young people no favors by shielding them from pain instead of preparing them to deal with it:

[T]he advocates of benign censorship fundamentally miss a simple truth that Buddhists have known for millennia: life is pain. Most Americans find this statement jarring at first, but when you think about it for even a moment and accept that there is nothing strange or odd about the challenges inherent in being alive, life becomes less painful. As philosophers and popular writers have argued, much of our unnecessary emotional pain comes from our obsession with avoiding pain. The sometimes painful process of intellectual growth and living in the world needs to be accepted, not fled from, and that acceptance needs to be taught. If you warn students that an unnatural, unforgivable crime has taken place anytime they are offended or challenged, you are dooming them to a life of feeling like they are constantly under attack. After all, there is no perfect escape from pain, ignorance, human failings, or challenging ideas. And even if there were, I don’t believe anyone would really want to live in that cave.

Greg also argues that in exposing us to a wide variety of ideas, including those we find hurtful, freedom of speech makes us stronger by expanding our knowledge and by enabling us to confront life’s challenges head-on:

Committing yourself to practicing the intellectual habits of a free people, on the other hand, can lead to a sense of liberation. It means that you can learn to handle arguments that go against everything you wish to be true, and in the end be wiser; it empowers you to sort through those challenges with humility and reason. While free speech certainly does not mean the end of ignorance, biases, or prejudices, it does mean that you are empowered—not controlled by paternalistic authority figures with biases, ignorance, and prejudices of their own—to navigate your own way through life, understanding that even an ignorant argument is an opportunity to increase your knowledge of the world, your fellow human beings, and yourself. We must stop apologizing for believing in free speech and embrace it as the best tool we have yet devised for the growth of knowledge and understanding.

This aspect of free speech doesn’t always get the attention it deserves in public discourse—but it is one that we ignore at our own risk.