Trigger Warnings


I take it that no one thinks we have a categorical obligation not to upset each other. But many of us think, myself included, that we have the right to try to protect ourselves from being upset. And so to give effect to this right, some people think others have an obligation to provide me with (what’s come to be called) a ‘trigger warning’, i.e. fair warning that they may be about to upset me.

In all likelihood they won’t upset me. (Is anyone shocked by the “mature subject matter, depictions of violence, scenes of nudity, and strong language” the networks feel compelled to warn us about at the outset of some standard Friday night fare?) But better safe than sorry. So we allow the pro-Life lobby to display their posters of aborted fetuses in the hallway leading from the Student Union to the gym. But we warn potential users of that hallway so if they don’t want to be exposed to those images they can reroute themselves.

On the surface this seems reasonable enough. But it presupposes two things. First, that we all share a common take on what others might find upsetting. And second, that you don’t have a right to try to circumvent my efforts to protect myself. Huh?

Well, as often as not you want to upset me. As a pro-Lifer you want me to be upset when I see what an aborted fetus looks like. Or as an anti-Zionist you want me to be upset by the image of an Israeli gunship casting its demonic shadow over a Palestinian child clutching a teddy bear. That is, you want me not to be able to avoid facing the parallels between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto.

Let’s take these two presuppositions in order.

I teach Philosophy of Religion. Let’s face it. Our religious beliefs, including my own, are a hoot. If we can’t laugh at our faiths we can’t critique them. And if we can’t critique them we can’t deepen them. I make this clear in the course outline, and again on the first day of class. But unless I write every word of every lecture well beforehand – which I’m not going to do – how am I to give fair warning about what might come out of my mouth next? Hell, even I don’t know what I’m about to say until I’ve already said it.

I know not to use the n word or the c word. But can I mention them? I know there are no jokes about Mohammed. But Jesus on the cross saying, “Peter, I can see your house from here!” has never raised a scowl. If some day it does, should I have given fair warning that it was coming? And if I do, what’s the student to do? Keep popping in and out of the room until class is finally over?

Sometimes I say ‘fuck’. So do you. Do you know when you’re about to say fuck? I don’t. I could make it a policy never to say fuck in the classroom or the office or the hallway. But maybe, to be on the safe side, I should make it a policy never to say ‘damn’. And then, to be even more considerate of some Mormon coming straight off his mission, to never say ‘darn’.

Maybe I should learn to talk like Ned Flanders. But hang on. That won’t save me from the wrath of those who find okely dokely offensive. Who could find okely dokely offensive? you ask? Anyone who associates it with Ned Flanders, Flanders with kindergarten Christianity, and kindergarten Christianity with atrocities too numerous and horrible to mention. But if I can’t say fuck or shit, you’d sure as hell better check out the etymology of the heebie jeebies. And while you’re at it, check out golly gee.

Okay, ‘nuff said. The second issue, recall, is whether I can try to do an end run around your right to cover your ears in class, or to refuse to read the assigned text, if thine ears or thine eyes offend thee. As your professor, can I test you on your command of this material? Obviously yes, since otherwise I might only be able to test you on what you knew before registering for my class. Multiply this across all forty of your classes and you’d be entitled to a degree without learning a damn thing!

If I’m a pro-Lifer, can I leave an image of an aborted fetus on the screen of one of the computers in the library? Obviously yes, since otherwise neither could the university leave its logo on the screen, lest someone should find it offensive. Somewhere in that logo two lines cross at right angles. This is subliminal Christian proselytizing, up with which, as a Jew, I will not put!

The women’s washroom is a designated refuge against prurient male eyes. I have no objection to the university likewise providing Moslem students with a Mohammed joke-free room. The problem is Sunni and Shiite students may then just go at each other instead over the legitimate heir to the Prophet’s authority. If you think Donald Trump can be incendiary, try the streets of Baghdad.

No, the most we can do is promise our students freedom from physical injury. Protection of their sensibilities is both beyond our power and contrary to our very raison d’etre.

A related, but not to be conflated issue, is whether we should be allowing the likes of Holocaust deniers to speak on campus. This is a tough one. It’s not that Jewish students are likely to attend the event. But the very fact that others are is bound to make them feel uncomfortable. And understandably so.

The problem is that we have members of faculty, never mind students, who feel the same way about global warming deniers, or anti-vaxers, or any number of unpopular positions. If for the university community anything is a res judicata – anything at all – then we are no longer a university.

The only exception is what might undermine the safety of a community member, and that includes her feeling safe. Hence the perfectly defensible injunction against incitement. But if Holocaust denial is incitement, it’s not Jewish students who need protecting from newly minted anti-Semites; it’s the denier who needs protection from Jewish students. But then it’s the speaker who, if we’re to be courteous, should be afforded a trigger warning.

The University of Chicago recently sent a letter to its incoming class of 2020 saying pretty much what I’ve just said. [Insert link.] That it should have been necessary to say it does not speak well for what high school students think university is about. Perhaps instead of a trigger warning that there’ll be no trigger warnings, at the bottom of a student’s acceptance letter should be written the words: Warning: The University of Chicago is a university.



Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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