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.
Why is it that students on both sides of the Atlantic are embracing the language of trigger warnings and safe spaces? Watch the fierce debate with @JonHaidt @jowilliams293 Lord Macdonald @epkaufm @David_Goodhart here: https://t.co/U6OsgEdnaQ
— Policy Exchange (@Policy_Exchange) November 24, 2018
To which Don Moynihan, a professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy and previously at the University of Wisconsin, said:
Really? How many students? In 16 yrs never once had a student ask for a trigger warning or safe space. Lost count of the times I’ve heard the privelaged class equate these to the fall of western civilization https://t.co/T8bvmjgnLb
— Don Moynihan (@donmoyn) November 24, 2018
Same here. In 18 years at Princeton, I've never once had an actual student ask for a trigger warning or seek a safe space.
And judging from the responses to this thread, few other profs have either.https://t.co/LseZCbDKS1
— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) November 25, 2018
Not a single time during 6.5 years at Temple for me.
— Douglas Webber (@dougwebberecon) November 25, 2018
I’ve taught undergrads for 35 yrs and also never had a student mention trigger warnings or safe spaces. My course includes content on suicide, terminal illness, and bereavement. Students have spoken to me after classes on sensitive topics and I’ve recommended counseling as needed
— Professor Twain (@PrTwain) November 25, 2018
My students have readings and copies of my PowerPoint slides before every class. I couldn’t possibly anticipate everything a student would find stressful and provide a warning. Life is not a bubble. If this was a problem I’d have seen it on my course evaluations
— Professor Twain (@PrTwain) November 25, 2018
Halfway through my 22nd year of college teaching and I’ve never been asked for any of these. Of course you can’t be glib in speaking of certain things but the idea that students are fragile snowflakes is fiction.
— Daniel Kilbride (@dpkilbride) November 25, 2018
Students are fine with — and often very interested in — covering uncomfortable material when it's treated with seriousness & sensitivity. Many who complain about trigger warnings just like to be shocking for its own sake & get mad when anyone complains about their bad teaching.
— Steven White (@notstevenwhite) November 25, 2018
Some professors did, however, mention some of their students being “triggered.”
I have—& a lot, for 30 years. I teach Greek/Roman works that prominently involve rape. They can trigger flashbacks, PTSD, & more. 1st day of class, I say they can ask for private alerts when the topic will come up. Every time, students ask for warning—not to avoid but to prepare.
— NEHRomanComedy (@NEHRomanComedy) November 25, 2018
Others mentioned that giving a polite statement about a topic isn’t the same as a “trigger warning”:
In two decades at OU, the closest I've encountered is students (very reasonably imo) suggesting that I could have better prepared them for a film that I screened. But that's very different from demanding not to have to deal with certain texts.
— Ben Alpers ✴️ 🌹 (@Ben_Alpers) November 25, 2018
haven't been teaching long, but taught hundreds of university students and never had demands for trigger warnings or similar
I occasionally warn when I'm going to talk about something that might make some people uncomfortable, but that's just good manners
— Shaun Ratcliff (@ShaunRatcliff) November 25, 2018
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”:
This is literally what most people mean when they talk about such “warnings”. The only people for whom “trigger warnings” appear to be an onerous burden are the ones who are going out of their way to make them a political issue.
— sam (@verysimple) November 25, 2018
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.