Political Correctness and Trigger Warnings

“The Liberals Are Killing the Liberal Arts,” by Harvey Silvergate. The Wall Street Journal, 11/10/2014.

In the October just passed, MIT circulated a survey questionnaire to its student body on sexual assault to determine the extent of the problem, if any. In today’s climate of political correctness, they felt it was necessary to include the following:

TRIGGER WARNING: Some of the questions in this survey use explicit language, including anatomical names of body parts and specific behaviors to ask about sexual situations. This survey also asks about sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence which may be upsetting. Resources for support will be available on every page of the survey, should you need them.

Lordy day! Fetch me the smelling salts, Mammy, I swear I’s about to swoon.

Good thing they included the support resources—on every page!— for those poor, innocent college kids who know nothing of sex, never even looked down on their own bodies.

Trigger warnings are becoming common in academic circles. One definition says they are warnings of “racism/racial slurs, abelist slurs, ant-Semitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence.”

Two of the words in the definition—Islamophobic and abelist— are so new I had to add them to my spell-checker dictionary.  I didn’t even know what an “abelist slur” was and had to look it up.  It means “showing discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities.” You will only find it in the newest of dictionaries or online.

I don’t blame the authors inserting these trigger warnings. None of us wants a cart-load of trouble over trivial words, and writers have learned to recognize the quicksand.  They probably agree the warnings are ridiculous, but feel they must add them to deflect a tsunami of criticism, even riots, with what we used to call “cover your a**. ”  (I will not fully spell out the offending a-word that may send you into therapy, but you get the meaning.)

The paradox is that a liberal arts education is meant to expose students to a wide variety of desperate ideas, yet many of those ideas are violently opposed by militant groups that can easily cower a liberal arts faculty.  What’s a poor liberal liberal-arts professor to do?  Compromise by adding trigger warnings, of course.

Smith College recently held a panel discussion to discuss the growing intolerance of diverse opinions that could possibly offend anyone. (Is anyone really offended, or do they just enjoy the role?)  They were discussing such things as how to present Mark Twain’s use of the n-word in the classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One of the panelists, a lawyer and former board member of the ACLU, said, “When I say, “n-word,” what word do you hear in your head? You hear the word n****r.” (She then uttered the forbidden word itself, but don’t expect me to stick my neck out.)

She pointed out the important difference between hurling an epithet at someone and uttering a forbidden word during an academic discussion.

Didn’t help. In the face of overwhelming criticism, the Smith College president later apologized in a letter to the students and faculty who “were hurt and made to feel unsafe” by the lawyer’s comments.

The author of the Wall Street Journal article concludes with, “Hypersensitivity to the trauma allegedly inflicted by listening to controversial ideas approaches a strange form of derangement. . . . For this disorder, there is no effective quarantine.”

(With my increasing hearing loss, I am now alert for the hurtful and demeaning “d-word.” There! No one said it, but I know you thought it, you . . . you . . . abelist scum, you.  Where’s my lawyer? My therapist?)



About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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