Trigger Warnings and Voodoo Psychology

A common theme at this blog has been the use of claims of offense to control the streams of discourse, most notably in academia. I’ve mentioned before that my syllabi specifically include the statement, in bold and all caps: “YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE COMFORTABLE.” On the other hand, we have a mandatory annual meeting about harassment in which a lawyer spends an hour telling us never to do or say or write, or even receive via e-mail, anything that might cause a rush of blood to Mrs. Grundy’s cheeks (to say nothing of her other anatomical regions).

Fortunately, the folks at Mondoville have enough sense to operate from the bedrock of Ciceronian stasis theory, which allows people to consider things like intentionality and seriousness. But these days, we live in a stasis-free age of “zero tolerance” for an ever-increasing number of situations, and that lack of tolerance is being used as a club with alarming frequency, which benefits… well, lawyers and other people who get to hold the club — which of course leads to a scramble to be first-to-the-club.

At least, I hope it benefits those folks, because it isn’t doing anyone else a damned bit of good, and as this article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in the Atlantic suggests, it may be doing considerable harm. A few choice passages:

Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.

[…] Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on “blaming the victim,” it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity. The thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card.


Since 2013, new pressure from the federal government has reinforced this trend. Federal antidiscrimination statutes regulate on-campus harassment and unequal treatment based on sex, race, religion, and national origin. Until recently, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights acknowledged that speech must be “objectively offensive” before it could be deemed actionable as sexual harassment—it would have to pass the “reasonable person” test. To be prohibited, the office wrote in 2003, allegedly harassing speech would have to go “beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.”

But in 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply “unwelcome.” Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.

However, as anyone who has spent much time living can attest, the universe doesn’t really seem to have much regard for our emotions. Allowing our students to act as if it does — that someone has a responsibility to shelter them from offense, and to silence the offender — does them a disservice.

Or to offer a personal example (it’s my blog, after all): After my folks were murdered, a crime scene cleanup crew from Servpro came to their house to tend to the areas where Mom and Dad were found. Servpro is a franchised operation with a nationwide reach, which means that I see their commercials (and the company’s lime-green vehicles) on a pretty regular basis. Every time I have one of these encounters, I recall — I reconstruct in my head — the experience of standing at the edge of my driveway, watching folks in biohazard gear, carrying bags of paper (I presume) towels stained by my mother’s and father’s blood and brains, out the front door and to their green van. It’s not a delightful experience — I don’t wish it on anyone. But I know I’ll keep seeing those commercials and those vehicles, because they’re part of the world.

God willing, my students won’t have to experience that unpleasantness. However, cocooning them from a world with unpleasantness does them no favors. Better (and this brings us back to the Atlantic piece) they should learn that they have to face that unpleasantness and cope as best they can.

Go read the article: it matters if you care about education, or for the people we educate.

A tip of the Mondo mortarboard to Kathy Phillips Nanney, via Facebook.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Politics, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Trigger Warnings and Voodoo Psychology

  1. Rai says:

    Dude, we’re singing from the same pew on this one.

  2. Pingback: Retro Satanas! | Professor Mondo

  3. The anti-harassment culture of academia scares the 6@!! out of me. Earlier this summer, I spent the equivalent of an entire day watching long videos on Title IX and the Clery Act, and then having to pass some tests. One I passed by the skin of my teeth, thank goodness—I don’t want to go through that again. I am now an official reporter of harassment—not.

    I will not become a member of feminism’s secret police.

    I believe in being ethical, treating everyone fairly, etc. I couldn’t IMAGINE touching a student or a fellow teacher, or making sexual comments, and I don’t think I should be held hostage to other people’s moral problems. The worst part is that this anti-harassment culture puts emphatic limits on the energy flow of the class room, since one must now constantly second-guess one’s self: can I say that? can I use this scenario as an example?

    The worst part for me is that an adjunct, I have no protections at all. A single specious accusation could destroy my career, such as it is.

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