There is so much to say on this issue of trigger warnings. It has so many directions to it, and so many caveats are needed, and so much of our past experience imposes itself on the issue — that I cannot imagine at this point offering any sort of summative argument, but I shall say what I feel I can say, and hope that in the process my thoughts coalesce into a reasonably cogent argument.
I should say up front that this essay is written under the assumption that you have read The original Columbia Students’ article and Aaron Hanlon’s response (nominally to Jerry Coyne). Coyne’s side of the argument I have set aside. Given the few caveats that Hanlon himself provides, I largely agree with Coyne’s argument that difficult issues are difficult for a reason and should be addressed in the terms of that difficulty; imbedded in such difficulties we find matter that will give us the things that we need to learn as humans about being human.
It is not only that we should not ask to be released from dealing with such difficulties (although, Hanlon rather nicely steps us aside from that desire), but that without sampling such difficulties we will lack the catalyst that makes certain experiences tense, horrifying, even dreadful, but, nonetheless, humanizing. I believe strongly that the perfect state of human experience is one that is riddled with the natural tensions that come from the many balancing acts of being human. Finding a personal identity is not something we should ever think of as having a kind of finality, a goal for our personal journey through life. If we should find it, life and time and circumstance will hopefully do us the small favor of whisking it away before we have grown too comfortable and become one of those who quietly falls into the shallows of walking somnambulanc.
At the same time I see no reason to engage in the rather amusingly over the top melodramatic reflexes that Coyne and others today think is appropriate for our sensational times. Literary Fascists are not at work here. The sky is not falling. By the way, may I recommend my friend Himadri Chatterjee‘s response to an earlier call for trigger warnings. It is along the same lines as Coyne, but a touch more nuanced.
Hanlon Introduces Two New Aspects to the Issue
I think that Hanlon introduces two new aspects to the discourse on trigger warnings. First, he shifts the issue from bureaucratic oversight, to pedagogical practice. The trigger warning, he tells us, is simply a way of starting the conversation about the issue, not a way of excusing a student from engaging the difficulty. In all honesty, as a teacher myself, I have often used trigger warning in this fashion. Surprise is not as effective a tool as some teachers think it is. I like to let students know, not only are we coming on something difficult, but that it is alright to find it difficult and to talk about it. But Hanlon handles the pedagogical issues quite nicely — so I will send you back to him on this issue, and move on.
Like Coyne, Hanlon clearly sees that the instructor from the students’ original article, the gentleman who dismissed the concerns about rape and insisted on the beauty of the poetry, was in the wrong — and, I think, this would be true even if triggers had been provided. Hanlon clarifies the role of empathy very nicely. Frankly, I would not want to take a class from a professor of literature who lacked such empathy, since that same empathy that allows the professor to respond to the student, is necessary to understand the subtleties of the text. I would add, that empathy when not present within the classroom or after-hours discourse could result in far more damage than trigger warnings that had the unfortunate effect of keeping a student from engaging. As humans, and thus by nature messy, we have plenty of difficulties. If a student does not engage this one, another one will surely come along.
One of the rather odd arguments I have seen raised in contradiction to dealing with these triggering difficulties is that it means professors will have to be psychological councilors. But good teachers, again I am expanding on Hanlon a bit, have always known that a small, but important component of counseling is part of the teaching profession — particularly when the goals of the learning process concern maturity, growth, values, and the central ideas of human life. And as these goals have been steadily offered as necessary and contrary to the avoidance language that has been associated with trigger warnings, we must assume that such difficulties are inherent to the educational process.
I want to deal quickly with an issue that Hanlon does not address. One line of argument on this issue that I have seen primarily in comment sections is that the trigger warnings are being put forward by weak students who wish to hide behind a victim mentality. Seems odd that four or five students who took it on themselves to publish something they most likely knew would be controversial should be characterized as weak. Sometimes our arguments that seem the most rational stray farthest afield from rationality. But as many have responded (in the comment sections) — this has nothing to do with weakness or victimhood. It takes courage to say this upsets me — although it take even more courage to address those fears. This is not a process for the weak — empathy takes strength, self-awareness takes strength, maturation takes strength — giving way to anger, resentment and ad hominem, these are the things that betray weakness — and today I see plenty of that on all sides of questions like this.
To finish up on the pedagogical issue, most of the thoughts in these various articles have focused on literature courses — I think this is because academics hate to mix and match in curricular concerns. But if education is itself inherently attentive to these maturing and growing issues, this would suggest that the pedagogical issues Hanlon raises are applicable to many if not all disciplines: certainly the social sciences, and the humanities, but even hard sciences, professional training, and maths — although in the latter cases the demand may not be so great within the standard content, in all disciplines, professors are sought out for advise on careers and other aspects of life. Counseling students is endemic to the professorial profession and ought to be recognized as such. All the same professors clearly should not move into the territories of psychological counseling, even if they have the expertise, because the counseling relationship is a special one, and, for very good reasons our culture believes that it belongs under a special covenant or contract — and that is where it should go.
The Call for University Support
The second thing that Hanlon adds to the discourse is his concern for adjunct professors, but this is really camouflage for a larger concern — the concern he has for the corporate support the university provides for all professors. His concern seems to be that the university does not have a support system in place to really support the academic freedom of the professor (and I am inclined from my own experience to think he is correct in that. He is walking an interesting tight rope here — the tight rope of faculty responsibility).
His comments on using trigger warnings as part of an effective pedagogy of introducing difficult ideas up front (not as the quaint surprises that some professors think wake their students up from their intellectual lethargy — which, as I have said, have never been convincingly portrayed, at least not to me, as an effective pedagogy), then listening to the students and responding to their needs (and I read into that, while remaining true to the material, be it text or disciplinary content) really amount to an appeal to professorial responsibility; and that responsibility is expressed in terms of pedagogy and what it means to engage in good teaching practices.
Moving a little past our author again, I see in this the responsibility to respond not only to student needs, but also to societal needs. Respecting the text of the works involved, such as Ovid, is to my mind a part of that societal responsibility — frankly, such a respect is best expressed by both appreciating and critiquing the text. As an aside, I do think that identity politics goes a bit past its prerogative by injudiciously condemning some texts for what the texts tell us about their times and culture, but we shall see that better when we look at identity politics as a system of morality (which is where I am heading). Incidentally, John Dewey made the point quite clear in one of his late papers where he wrote that teachers cannot make the student central to the teaching process without doing an injustice to the needs of society. In my own work, I go bit beyond this and suggest that four elements vie for centrality in the teaching process: the teacher, the student, the text, and the society as context. And that the good teacher is always moving the center of the classroom experience around to address each of the four as needed.
Now coming back to the question of faculty responsibility: in a tenure-based system concerned with issues of academic freedom and faculty responsibility is a difficult system to address. If the teacher in question does not believe the needs of students or the needs of society supersede the needs of the individual professor or the course content, then academic freedom remains the trump card. Setting aside the uncooperative curmudgeons who will always grow in such a system, the culture of the university does show some respect for good pedagogy — so it is quite wise of Hanlon to push in that direction. But university culture is very slow to change and to the extent that this issue reflects that problem we need to admit that in faculty responsibility we will generally see a potential obstacle to almost any attempt by a university to adopt new cultures; this has most certainly affected the current attempt to adopt trigger warnings, and is likely to ultimately stymy this effort (one of the reasons I tend to be bemused by the sky-is-falling crowd on an issue like this is that there are few cultures are more resistant to imposed change — and we have already seen a good deal of eye-rolling on this issue coming from academics).
Finally, we come to the issue Hanlon avoids completely, and that is the validity of the students’ demands. Of course this is essentially the question of the validity of the demands of identity-based politics. I want to start off in a very positive mode, because I think many people today are overly inclined to want to rush to the extremes of either condemning or affirming the choices of identity politics. I believe that at their core the basic issues of identity politics are sound: racism, misogyny, cultural sensitivity are, to my mind, the dictates of a complex culture that contains multiple, overlapping subcultures. The identity politics crowd are actively dealing with something that all of us will have to deal with. I do not believe that this group has always selected the best solutions, and often they have overstated their case and admitted elements that ought to be open to discussion as if they were foregone conclusions.
On the other hand our traditional sources for such ideas (religion, philosophy, institutional practices) have not, in sum, been as responsive, or have attempted to leave in place moral strictures that should not be acceptable to us today — for example, our old conceptions of the inferiority of blacks, or people of color, if you would, just cannot provide the cement for a politically and culturally complex society that at one point in time it rather unfortunately did. A desire to reinstate the authority of a Christian God across the entire American population leaves one wondering at the blinders that some people are willing to wear. In my mind there is no doubt that we need a new system of morality, although, in many cases, centrist that I am, I do believe we have thrown out moral strictures that were cultural in nature simply because we asked the rhetorically easy question: does this have to be this way? when we should have also asked: and what will be gained by changing it? or even: what will we put in its place? Our modern approach to morality has all too often told us, quite wrongly, that we are better off with no moral authority, because authority is inherently evil — that it is not, should by now be a standard understanding amongst our intelligentsia, it has been established so clearly, so often — but we prefer our extremes to the reasonableness of more rational thought.
Morality and Ethics
Where multiculturalism and identity politics go wrong has, I think, two heads: one is that it has built a complex system of morality, often called political correctness, which has not been seen for what it is — that is to say, it has not been clear to those building it that what they were building was a system of morality. The second is in attaching to that system of morality a methodology derived from ethics, in which an individualized system of personal choice, supposedly driven by rationality, becomes the means for asserting the active and practical results of the system.
I am consciously using a distinction between morality and ethics which I will readily admit does not hold true in any consistent fashion. In this distinction 1) ethics — addresses matters of personal choice motivated by a sense of the good (very Aristotelian), and 2) morality — addresses matters of societal expectations attended by an authority derived from the community or state (more Augustinian). Now, as I say, this is not an absolute distinction between these two words, but the distinction is fairly consistent with modern usage. Before I go on, let’s be clear about one thing — it is impossible for any society to exist without the second of these. Ethics, in depending on a sense of what is good, cannot really produce its results free from that sense of what is good that derives that from our society (or culture) to some extent. But I am not so much a determinist as to allow for a lack of free will and so within the normative framework of ethics in today’s society we do allow that ethics is a matter of personal choice and personal action (although it almost never produces completely personal consequences). Meanwhile, we often caricature morality for the personal choices that those leaders of the entitled hegemony (a term I will attend to below) make in asserting the prerogatives of a moral system. Looked at this way there can be neither pure morality, nor pure ethics, but if we are not looking for an absolute separation between the two, and are satisfied with a roadmap that helps us understand the territory, the distinction should work fine.
As I have said multiculturalism or identity politics, if you would, has produced a moral system. They, the multiculturalists, have expected that moral system to be entirely responsive to the personalized decision process of modern ethics. But the personal process has often failed them, so, unconsciously I suspect, the politically correct multiculturalists have reached out for the tools by which a community regulates moral behavior, such as public shaming, codes of conduct, safe spaces (i.e. sacred spaces), judgments from community leaders, education and indoctrination, etc. Now none of these practices is inherently wrong — as I say, there never has been a community, and never will be a community in which ethics as pure personal choice can function without something in the form of social and communal action working alongside it — and, indeed, without something functioning as a moral authority.
A rather eccentric aspect of political correctness is that it sees culture as an imposition on society. Culture is not something that can be as directly controlled as one should like, particularly if one is in the business of defining a system of morality. It will not take to new ideas quickly, and it is led by those damnable things that we now call hegemonies (which has quickly become something of a cartoon — I used it above in the sense of a caricature, but I seldom find it used in any different way). The term hegemony has one admirable quality, we can assert it without having to define it or understand its actual make-up, i.e. to whom it refers — and we do not have to be responsible for our implications in using it. But this has blinded the politically correct to their own role in culture forming and their own responsibility as the hegemony behind that culture we have come to call political correctness. (And once again let me be clear: many aspects of multiculturalism, political correctness, and identity politics reflect very necessary responses to a complex modern culture. It is less the content, although some of the content is much too extreme, and more the shape and method of political correctness that has resulted in the moderates responding unpleasantly to political correctness on the whole.)
The politically correct have failed largely because they have sought to create a culture that does not always respond reasonably to the heritage it has inherited, and has tended to isolate and even alienate itself from the larger culture. It has even attempted, all too aggressively, to impose its morality where it has not yet been accepted. It has been positioned as being at odds with traditional and religious moral systems — and done so when, often, there was no need to do so. But at this point we are well beyond what I would like to arbitrarily suggest are the limits of the issue at hand.
A Non-Summative and Messy Conclusion
Basically what I am saying is that the trigger warnings are not the problem, particularly if they are used, as Hanlon suggests, as an intervention that goes hand-in-hand with the accepted role and responsibility of pedagogy — which, as I have said, is the one place one can often find a common ground of responsibility within a tenure track faculty system. The problem really is that political correctness with its moral system of identity politics is curiously unaware of its own identity. It has not understood itself for what it is, and has begun using the communal tools of morality without realizing their full implications. The danger to literature is but part of the problem, although it is one that frustrates me and many others.
But this is not the first time we have seen this sort of thing happen. And it has been handled so ham-handedly that I, frankly, cannot see how it will survive. The culture wars of the eighties and nineties, threatened to produce an apocalyptic end — but the dead have not yet risen, rapturously or otherwise. Our culture has such strong elements of true free thought, the real free thought of honest critical thinking, that I do not see a fascistic outcome as likely — and that is what it would take to really undo good literature and wise thought.
We are living in messy times — but when have we not lived in messy times — unless we still want to believe in a garden of eden, it is simply a messy thing to be human — and I tend to believe that that is a good thing.