Monday, May 19, 2014

Trigger Warnings

It's not an idea immediately attractive to anyone with antennae for liberty, putting warning labels on academic content, so it's no surprise that a proposal to mandate professors at the University of Santa Barbara place such advisories–popularly called "trigger warnings" in the online feminist community–has earned ire. The plan is unpalatable to me for a few reasons.

The now infamous proposition by UCSB junior Bailey Loverin suggests that the liberty to present, discuss, and debate in an academic manner and context should be subject to fears of inducing fear, of all concerns, is inimical to a serious pursuit of knowledge. It's hard to reconcile a tradition which in so many ways sees itself descended from Socrates, Western Civilization's great gadfly swatted down by popular opinion, with tiptoeing around sensitivities and preferring safety to hard truths. At least, though, Socrates was charged with crimes of impiety and corrupting the youth, not simply terrifying onlookers. While in public it is decorous to avoid even giving offense, and while offense is not inherently desirable in environments of debate and inquiry, there giving offense is considered worth the risk.

Moreover, the suggestions not only that students–learners and investigators of the world–would prefer not to confront challenging ideas but also that so many of them would so decline the challenge that a school requires a mandatory alert system, is one chilling to the spirit of inquiry and academia.

Nonetheless, a degree of common sense would easily ameliorate the situation. Sensitive students should investigate classes ahead of time and professors should, in private consultation with the student, advise them whether a given course or class would be appropriate for them. The situation in the classroom is not so different from that of dining, in which before the meal someone with allergies might ask whether a dish contains a particular ingredient. In both environments the individual's concern is not simply fickle but serious: panic and anaphylaxis. In both instances, though, we ought to expect that the individual with abnormal condition make the necessary inquiries. Unfortunately the presence of mandated food labeling laws suggests in which direction the debate turned. The result of oversight is always the same: conservative uniformity.

It's prudent and liberal to accommodate personal, private requests when possible and it's not unreasonable that a university should expect from professors a standard of concern for students, but the enforcement of such a law as Ms. Loverin's not only privileges sensitivity over inquiry but requires a criteria which seems destined to expand to compendious size. Each instance stifles the curriculum.

It should not be thought, though, that such a preference for inquiry means that discussions of sensitive topics should be frank or designed to desensitize, for to the contrary discussions should impress upon students the seriousness of the topic. Likewise I don't suggest that institutions of higher learning have no interest or responsibility toward accommodating student needs, but only that such a law as proposed is an illiberal and counterproductive means, injurious to the university's other goals, toward reasonable ends.

Ad summam, students should be responsible for their behavior and thus should inquire about curricula before hand, and professors should accommodate those inquiries. If laws need to exist to ensure such common sense and courtesy, then the higher education die is already cast.

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