The Huffington Post: Trigger Warnings Redux

Gary A. Olson, president of Daemen College

Commentary appeared in The Huffington Post:

My last blog post, on trigger warnings, followed the publication of a front-page New York Times story and was quickly followed by a number of other newspaper stories, as well as a segment devoted to the subject on NPR's talk program On Point. What strikes me about the coverage so far, as well as many of the responses to my own piece, is that much of it focuses on whether trigger warnings are a good idea or simply another way to coddle students, to protect them from the harsh realities of a brutal world.

The fact that the discussion seems to be stuck on this particular axis suggests to me that perhaps I did not make my own thesis clear.

First, I would never argue that warning students that they might encounter offensive material is a bad practice. In fact, I take it generally to be a good practice -- with the one caveat that occasionally good pedagogical practice may call for surprise and even shock. What I don't find acceptable is creating a list of triggers and mandating warnings based on that list.

An experienced educator ought to know full well when it is appropriate to warn students about reading or viewing material. Mandating the practice of trigger warnings presupposes some third party or group to compile the list and enforce its use. Who would that be? A committee? A college administrator? A faculty or student senate? What would the penalty be for refusing to comply? And wouldn't such a list be infinitely expandable? After all, something that does not offend you might offend me, and vice versa.

Some commentators have suggested that the trigger-warning movement is a wrongheaded extension of multiculturalism and the political correctness that sometimes accompanies it -- as someone on the On Point program called it, "political correctness run amok." This may account for some people's motivation, but I can't help but think that the movement is also, at least in part, a backlash against multiculturalism itself.

The list of triggers mentioned in recent reports is a veritable top-10 list of multicultural causes: racism, sexism, heterosexisim, classism, cissexism, abelism, and the like. These are the very systems of oppression that proponents of multiculturalism oppose. These are also the subjects that have become an important part of college curricula.

Over the last few decades, colleges have thoroughly integrated the concerns of multiculturalism into their curricula. At one time not so long ago, college students never had to encounter such subjects in their classes; now it is practically unavoidable.

Could it be that motivating some trigger-warning proponents is a distaste for such unpleasant topics in and of themselves? Some people just don't wish to confront the difficult and uncomfortable facts of racism, sexism, and the other "-isms" that constitute the multicultural agenda and prefer instead the status quo.

The fact is that systemic social problems such as sexism and racism will never be corrected without confrontation and without the discomfort that arises from it.

I'll give a concrete example. A good friend of mine is one of the nation's most celebrated African-American feminists. One day we stood in line at a supermarket checkout counter. When our turn to check out arrived, the clerk, a middle-aged white woman, completely ignored the celebrity who stood before her and looked beyond her to the white man in a smart suit -- me -- and asked if I preferred paper or plastic.

Some people would have simply let this insensitivity go unnoticed; after all; there are many insensitive people in the world. Not my colleague, however. She immediately took control of the situation, looked the clerk right in the eye, and asked in the sweetest voice she could muster, "Excuse me, did you not notice that I was first in line and that I am the one with money in my hand, or do you just not acknowledge black people?"

Flustered, the clerk sputtered an apology and quickly scanned our items and sent us on our way.

My colleague chose not to remain silent because she knows that racism is an abstract concept for most of us until it is made concrete by calling attention to manifestations of it -- that is, the cognitive dissonance that results from confronting someone in the act of racist action is instructive and potentially transformative.

The grocery clerk may or may not have used this incident as a learnable moment, but the discomfort was precisely the point. She was afforded the opportunity to observe how racism works in real time; it was then up to her whether she learned from it or not.

It is precisely in these kinds of uncomfortable moments that we have the opportunity to rise out of our entrenched ways of understanding the world and perhaps changing them. This, after all, is what education is all about.

These, then, are the two main points of my last blog post: that the problem is not with warning students about possibly offensive material but with officially mandating some system of warnings, and that sometimes good pedagogical practice specifically calls for shock.