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Spotting the Bad Guy


The phenomenon of “trigger warnings” on college campuses has been in the news lately. The term refers to a growing practice by university officials of advising students in advance that material to be covered in class may adversely affect victims of past traumas. I am uneasy about a trend to expand the number of subjects covered in trigger warnings, but not for the reasons commonly expressed in the media.

As Rebecca Meade recently wrote in The New Yorker, the term “trigger warning” appears to have originated on the internet to flag discussions of sexual violence, in consideration of victims of such violence. The New York Times reported that some colleges are implementing the practice more expansively, to warn students that, for example, a book or a movie on a course syllabus may cause distress or give offense. Instead of limiting the warnings to sexually violent content, students at a number of universities are advocating that similar cautions be issued with respect to material that raises issues of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and suicide, among other topics.

The reaction in academia, the media and beyond has been mixed. Supporters argue that such notices are essential to making classrooms “safe spaces” for students, a principle that many embrace in theory. However, a number of professors are concerned at what they see as a restriction on academic freedom. They note that the classroom is the ideal place to raise provocative questions to stimulate rich discussion. Others make the “slippery slope argument” – where do we draw the line in accommodating individuals who express discomfort about material? How many disclaimers will a professor need to include in his or her course reading list?

I support the notion of applying trigger warning to material that depicts sexual and other graphic violence as a precaution against provoking post-traumatic stress reactions among victims. I am, however, hesitant to forewarn students about content that deals with, for example, issues of sexism, racism, and ethnic discrimination. I think that students who read these lists of warnings prior to entering the classroom may be scared off from raising questions and issues that pertain to sensitive topics. I remember a college classmate turning to me and saying that she had never met a Puerto Rican; the only ones she knew were those portrayed in the movie West Side Story. It was an honest comment from someone who had grown up in the Midwest and had limited interactions with people of other ethnicities. It led to a conversation about my background and what it was like to grow up as a first generation half-Puerto Rican, half-Cuban in New York City. I wonder if trigger warnings will, for example, inhibit students from raising questions about what they’ve gleaned about people from different races and ethnicities from the popular media, and subsequent discussions about what is real and what is distorted.

But even more concerning to me is that trigger warnings serve as an alert to those who truly hold racist (or misogynist or homophobic) views that they shouldn’t talk about these opinions, thus making it harder for people like me to spot the racist (or misogynist or homophobe). When people are unfiltered, it’s much easier to identify who truly holds a belief antithetical to my own. In other words, it makes it harder to spot the bad guys when they are muzzled.nicubunu_Comic_characters_Borg

When I was in law school, I remember chatting with an experienced lawyer who specialized in prosecuting employment discrimination suits. We were discussing how the courts were making it more challenging to prove a claim by requiring proof of intentional discrimination, as opposed to inferring discrimination from the employer’s pattern of practices. Isn’t it difficult to prove, I asked her, that an employer specifically decided to, for example, not promote someone because they were black or a woman? The lawyer shook her head and smiled ruefully. She told me that I would be surprised at the discriminatory statements that people documented in emails and memos.

That conversations was 20 years ago. Today, many large employers regularly deliver programs on diversity in the workplace. I’m sure some of this programming does achieve its intended purpose of breaking down stereotypes. When individuals are told what types of statement are unacceptable, many will stop making them. Many will refrain because they will internalize the messages about why these remarks are offensive and come to understand that the beliefs or assumptions that underlie them are not valid. Others, however, will stop not because they now think the statements are not true but because they simply don’t want to get in trouble. They haven’t changed their attitudes, but we have taught them to keep their mouths shut.

I think the same dynamic could arise on college campuses if trigger warnings are expanded beyond material that contains graphic portrayals of violence. If I were in school today, I wouldn’t want to do anything that makes it more difficult to spot the fellow student or teacher who is a racist or misogynist.  Instead, I want to hear their uncensored words, their completely outrageous comments, so I know exactly who I am dealing with.

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