As a consumer of mass media, it is easy to get the idea that universities are epicenters of political correctness full of ultra-sensitive students who can’t handle discussions of history or race relations. As a student, you run into “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” much less frequently than you do in the media.

A discussion between British social psychologist Jonathan Haidt over his book The Coddling of the American Mind caused American professors across the country to weigh in, with many stating that they had rarely–if ever–encountered demands for trigger warnings.

To which Don Moynihan, a professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy and previously at the University of Wisconsin, said:

Some professors did, however, mention some of their students being “triggered.”

Others mentioned that giving a polite statement about a topic isn’t the same as a “trigger warning”:

Yet one self-described feminist lawyer in New York objected to Prof. Ratcliff’s tweet and argued that his simple warnings were equivalent to a “trigger warning”:

If that is what she thinks of as a trigger warning, the term has lost any semblance of meaning. National Review‘s Katherine Timpf has described trigger warnings as “obviously insane.” Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have written that trigger warning culture is meant to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

But if “trigger warnings” are simply a professor “warn[ing]” about “something that might make some people uncomfortable” for the sake of politeness, then they are not at all what Haidt and Lukianoff describe them as. Warning for the sake of politeness isn’t the same as censoring your lesson or excluding ideas.

What appears to have happened is an alliance was inadvertently formed between cultural progressives who strenuously advocate emphasizing the need for “trigger warnings” and the like for the small minority of people who might want (and/or need) them and right-leaning cultural conservatives for whom exaggerating the political correctness of society benefits their political and professional agenda. Progressives emphasize issues that affect a small, unrepresentative minority, and conservatives jump on those exaggerated controversies, made bigger by social media.

Progressives’ tendency (particularly academic-oriented progressives) to use pseudo-intellectual language like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” (or “black bodies” or “intersectional”) also contributes to the perceived problem, when they, like Twitter user Sam did, conflate the very ordinary and non-PC act of warning politely with giving a “trigger warning.” Sam may very well understand what she means by “trigger warning”–but conservatives who describe “trigger warnings” in the National Review don’t know what she means by it. If “trigger warning” just means giving a polite warning, then there is no need to create a new word to describe a concept so trite.


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