Tripping Triggers on College Campuses

As colleges across the country come back to life after a three-month slumber, the issue of who has the right to do what and when and where has once again trumped almost every other issue.

Perhaps the college gaining the most attention is the University of Chicago, which welcomed its freshmen this week with the typewritten version of Cher’s famous scene in Moonstruck. The letter explained that students should not expect “trigger warnings” in classes or “safe spaces” on the campus, in large part because the university embraces freedom of expression and isn’t into this whole coddling thing.

Seconds after that note became public, many faculty members and members of the general publicly applauded this effort to tell millennials to get their shit together and suck it up. Other faculty and many trauma advocates saw this as an offensive display of tone deafness by people in power.

It’s unclear to what degree this flat-out statement will lead to negative consequences or how it will impact the university throughout the year. However, the university’s attempt to inform its students came across in a John Wayne-like fashion. And much like a John Wayne movie, this statement had little nuance, sought to pound its point into the ground and people either loved it or they hated it.

In reading through the letter and through various other pieces written about this generation and the college environment, I find myself going back to my days researching media convergence: You would have 10 people researching “convergence” only to find that none of them were defining it the same way and everyone told the other people they were wrong in their approach.

Start with the idea of trigger warnings. Conceptually, they are meant to provide people who have suffered traumatic experiences with the ability to be aware of potentially triggering content so they can either avoid it or prepare themselves to deal with the circumstances. A good way to think about this is to think about what happens to some military personnel who come home from active war zones. For some of these folks, loud noises, like violent video games or fireworks, can short circuit their minds and drop them back into the war environment. Thus, they react in a way that is harmful or socially problematic without being able to stop themselves. One of my former students married a man who had PTSD and he could never be around during hunting season. The sounds of the guns would have him acting out violently toward her or anyone nearby. Thus, they kept him away from guns and away from the noises during the season.

In triggering situations, victims of trauma are unable to control their reactions and the triggers can cause them serious harm. A good friend once wrote about a traumatic experience involving her former partner’s death and how that trauma still impacts her to this day. Thus, when a professor in her grad program said something about how students would probably “rather slit your throat than do this assignment,” it literally triggered a horrifying response in her. She was violently ill, riddled with crippling anxiety and unable to function. I doubt the professor knew or thought about that before saying it, nor would he have likely said it if he knew the backstory on one of his students. The point, however, is that when we talk about “triggers” and “trauma” and “trigger warnings,” this is what they are materially about.

What the U of C letter is actually talking isn’t trigger warnings, but instead the idea of self-censorship out of fear of things people don’t like to hear or things that people find offensive. For quite some time, people have been noticing that colleges seem to be less and less about the free marketplace of ideas and more and more about “Oh, shit, we’re gonna get sued!” Comedians have noted they need to censor their work on campus. Speakers have been cancelled because of everything from religious objections to failing to “speak for the entire community” of some group. The specter of appearing insensitive has led to what some people have called the “wussification” of this generation. In an attempt to draw a line in the sand on this issue, that’s where the U of C went off the rails and lumped in everything anyone would ever call “icky” and stuck it under the umbrella of trigger warnings.

I agree with U of C on the idea of keeping things that are unpleasant or that have the ability to challenge a student’s worldview in play. Just because you don’t like something, it doesn’t follow that you can’t actually handle dealing with it. In talking about it, for the people who just don’t like certain things, discussions can breed understanding and potential growth. That’s not the same as triggers or trigger warnings.

Here’s an example of the distinction I’m trying to draw: I do not like talking about rape or thinking about it. That said, I have not been a victim of sexual assault of any stripe and despite my dislike of the topic, I can, in fact, have a discussion about it in hopes of improving how I see things and how I can be a better ally to victims.

There are people for whom the mention of a rape or any reference to sexual assault takes them all the way back to a traumatic experience and that literally breaks them. They can’t help it, there’s no way of stopping it and when it comes at them from left field, it renders them helpless and wounded. Their reactions are involuntary and are often unpredictable.

Furthermore, U of C isn’t banning trigger warnings or opening Pandora’s box of topics for their professors. Professors can choose to issue trigger warnings as they see fit and in most cases, professors who have classes with the potential to trigger students know when things are likely to cause pain. In my editing class, for example, I do an ethics assignment that has students weigh perspectives over a set of photos that showed a deadly car crash. The photos are real and at least one of them is extremely graphic. I post the assignment with a “read me first” note that explains what is going to be in the photos. I tell students if they have a reason they cannot view these or do this assignment to get ahold of me so that we can figure out a different assignment. I have had students contact me, telling me that they lost a family member in a car crash or that they have a friend who committed suicide in this way and that they don’t think they can handle the images. We worked around it and managed to create a decent substitute assignment.

Professors can do this if they see fit at the U of C. They just aren’t expected to or forced to. Kind of an important distinction.

That said, the lack of trigger-warning enforcement doesn’t mean professors can just be assholes. Just because I don’t have to issue a trigger warning about discussing sexual assault, it doesn’t follow that I could start with, “So, which of you ladies have gotten the old ‘I bet she meant yes’ treatment and how did that feel?” Levels of human dignity and decency still apply in the classroom and unless you are so socially inept that you make Rainman look like James Bond, you should be able to figure that out.

I get why the U of C thing is creating this dichotomy of rage: People often take shit way too far and thus the exemplars of those extremes are all we see. For every kid who has survived a traumatic experience and yet finds a way to persist in day-to-day life, amid all sorts of tripwires, there a dozen examples of people getting pissed off for things that make the mainstream folks want to scream.

The microaggressions outlined in this article include the famous “where are you from?” question, which some find offensive. The underlying assumption is that for certain groups, there’s an insinuation that the question presupposes them to be “not real Americans.” Truth be told, I ask every kid in everyone of my classes that question because in many cases, they’re from this state and I probably know someone from their hometown. I have yet to have a kid stand up and yell at me, “Oh, so I’m Asian, I must be from China or something? Why don’t you ask me where my fucking wok is you racist asshole!” The worst it ever gets is when I get kids from North and West high schools in my class and they still carry those rivalry grudges.

The “macroagression” exemplars are also things that make the mainstream scream. I had a colleague tell me once that a student noted, “I can’t call you doctor because you’re a woman.” OK, then… Guess that Ph.D. was a waste…

Professors who tell people that Hitler was an OK dude, people who talk about rape like it’s part of a regular night on the town or faculty who treat their students like sex toys deserve a swift kick in the ass.

However, it’s not being sexist if I don’t refer to that opening in the middle of the road as a “personal sewer ingress” instead of calling it a “manhole.

That’s not a trigger and that doesn’t need a warning and that’s something everyone involved in this discussion needs to learn pretty damned fast.

Otherwise, we will be harming the most vulnerable students and acquiescing to the most idiotic ones.

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