THE DEAN’S LETTER

On Monday, May 31, 2021, Matt Letts, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Lethbridge, sent the following missive to all members of the Faculty.

Statement on Residential School News – *trigger warning*

Dear colleagues,

The discovery of the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops residential school in the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in BC has horrified and saddened us all.  As faculty, staff, students and administrators, guests living in Blackfoot Confederacy territory, this atrocity alerts us to our responsibility and commitment to seek an end to all forms of settler colonial violence and ongoing racism and to deliver on the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Some of our colleagues and students may need extra support at this difficult time.  I, thus, remind you of our Counselling Services, the Employee and Family Assistance Program and other community resources.  Many of our students and their families have been impacted by the residential school system and continue to be impacted by inequities and injustices.  As always, please also provide accommodation and support to students in need.

On behalf of the Faculty of Arts & Science, I thank you for your efforts toward our commitments and to our students at this time of grieving and reflection.  #indigenouslivesmatter #MMIWG #TRC

Yours truly,

Matt

Matthew G. Letts, Ph.D.

Dean, Faculty of Arts & Science

University of Lethbridge – Iniskim

* * *

I’ve given Dean Letts the opportunity to retract. Silence has been the stern reply. But to be fair, he can’t very well retract, without giving grievous offence to those he wrote this letter to placate in the first place. So he’s put himself in a difficult position, a position he could have avoided by doing a little editing before pressing send. Still, his having declined to reply gives me constructive leave to comment as follows:

Letts might be forgiven for presuming to speak on behalf of “us all”, notwithstanding how implausible it is that anyone with enough education to be teaching at a Canadian university could have been either “horrified” or “saddened” by this particular news. Of the billions of people who’ve walked this Earth, I’d venture to guess the vast majority lie in unmarked graves. Were one to be horrified and saddened every time one of these graves was unearthed, I can’t imagine how she could enjoy a meal or a swim or a joke. Surely a life of such unremitting horror and sadness could not be a life worth living. 

But to be fair, talk of being horrified and saddened is patter, and patter is social lubricant. Not unlike when a priest tells a grieving parishioner that “Your child is now in the loving arms of Mary, mother of God!”, it has no cognitive content, nor is it intended to. As I say, it’s patter. So to call Letts out on his assurance that we’re all “horrified and saddened” would just be churlish. And as my readers know, I am anything but churlish.

No such pass, however, can be afforded the brain-numbing stupidity of referring to us as “guests” on Blackfoot Confederacy territory. A guest is someone who leaves when asked. If he doesn’t – and we won’t –  he’s something else. Imagine telling the relatives of the 256 Palestinians killed during those eleven days – 66 of them children – that we Jews are just occasionally misbehaving “guests”. 

“Uh, yeah, uh, sorry about that. We’re just packing up, but we’ll be gone in the morning.” 

Calling us “guests” is just adding insult to injury. And by presuming to speak for “us all”, Letts is implicating all of us in this stupidity.

But it gets worse. Apparently there’s no need to wait until we find out how these children died, over how many decades, under what circumstances they were buried, how the death rate among the 30% of indigenous children consigned to these schools compared to that of the 70% who remained in their communities, or to the death rate of similarly disadvantaged non-indigenous children at the time. Letts seems to know a priori that the death and burial of these 215 children was an “atrocity”.

Atrocity is a word we reserve for 215 children – or, in the case of Babi Yar, 215 thousand children – being lined up and shot. So to pronounce this as an atrocity is to have laid a charge, held a trial, and issued a verdict with some decanal “special way of knowing”. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose. And even better work if, in the wake of such a gnostic pronouncement, you can keep it, as I’m sure Letts will.

Letts’ letter is offensive. But what renders it as risible as it is offensive, is the “trigger warning”. Apparently Letts had no idea the story was covered by pretty much every major news network the world over. Does he really think some of his colleagues are learning of it for the first time from him? 

And of what exactly are we being warned? That there’s something coming that might upset us, such that if we don’t want to be upset, we should stop reading? That if we are going to read on, perhaps we should sit down lest we faint? 

Unlike Letts, I give my students one and only one trigger warning. “A university,” I tell them, “is a place where one is exposed to ideas that might be upsetting. Trigger warning: this is a university.”

This letter serves no purpose whatsoever other than to virtue signal. Everyone who reads it knows this. Some people find it heartwarming, others find it risible, and still others find it cringeworthy. But nobody needs to be told she’ll be too horrified and sad to attend that dinner party tonight. Save Matt Letts, of course, who’ll be asking his hosts whether they’d mind if he stays another century or two.

Each of us, the Dean included, has a right to make an ass of himself. But no one, the Dean included, has a right to make an ass of “us all”. As my readers know, I’m perfectly capable of making an ass of myself all on my own. I neither need nor appreciate any help from Dean Letts!



Categories: Editorials, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Update: My comment, 5th down, provides links to some empirical research on *trigger warnings*.

    Re: Dean Letts says the remains of residential school children “discovered” (more aptly, uncovered since it was known there were burials somewhere on the grounds) “has horrified and saddened us all”.

    I just read a Macleans article from yesterday, June 3, 2021.

    Tenille Campbell, “What I told my child about the Kamloops graves—to honour the 215
    An Indigenous mother describes the exhaustion of hearing about residential school trauma, and her determination to share those stories with the next generation”‘, June 3, 2021.

    https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/what-i-told-my-child-about-the-kamloops-graves-to-honour-the-215/

    Campbell, an indigenous mother whose father is a residential school survivor, talks to her daughter about residential schools and the Kamloops burials.

    Campbell’s reaction when she first heard news of the Kamloops graves (by reading an article)? She certainly wasn’t horrified.

    “Last week, when I first heard about the mass burial where 215 children were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., I skimmed the article, taking note of who and where, how and when. I sighed deeply, shaking my head, and then read the next story.

    That sounds callous and I hesitate to even mention it, but trauma is not new to Indigenous people, and sometimes it’s hard to endure yet another story. This is our reality.”

    I suspect a lot of people, indigenous or not, reacted, or not, the way Campbell did. Many, as Campbell, who have their own children.

    Campbell neither had nor needed a trigger warning. And, although she was saddened and tired, particularly when she had to talk to her daughter about the multiple graves, she wasn’t “horrified”. Which brings me to,

    … the Dean’s *trigger warning*

    As Campbell notes, “the news was picked up, appearing in hundreds and thousands of social feeds”.

    I suppose the internet should just be bracketed with one big *trigger warning*, as should the news, and hey, when you start your day, bracket it with a *trigger warning*. I give myself a *trigger warning* just before I look in the mirror each morning because I am without fail horrified and saddened by what I see. However, unless one completely unplugs from the world and, cf Voltaire, just tends her little garden, she is going to be exposed to a whole lot of horrible stuff. This is because there is a whole lot of horrible stuff in the world. And this horrible stuff is right there alongside the mostly mundane stuff and the bits of wonderful stuff. And on this note I turn back to Campbell who says,

    “If you are unable[sic] to do so, please educate yourself by reading books by Indigenous authors both about residential school, but also, about Indigenous joy. Understand that yes, residential school happened, and we are still processing the effects of that today, and that we are more than just resilient, we are more that just survivors.

    We are complex, diverse, creative and strong.”

    Indigenous people are not bracketed by a *trigger warning*. Holy shit.

    Now I do take a little exception with Campbell on the following, although I suspect she wouldn’t disagree.

    Being people, indigenous people are as “complex” and “diverse”, as, well, people. Which means “creativity and strength”, in whatever aspect these descriptors are meant, are indexed to the myriad individuals who identify as indigenous in myriad ways. Some will be a little more or less resilient or creative than others in certain ways about certain things. Because indigenous people are people. Human beings. Peers. Adults. Not humans in their nonage who can’t handle adult discussions. (And, if you read the article, even kids can handle adult discussions. Sometimes better than adults can!)

    Okay. I suppose there are some indigenous SJW “snowflakes” who would like to see the words *trigger warning*. But come on.

    A *trigger warning* to lay people, indigenous and non-, and to academics, indigenous and non-, is jejune and condescending.

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  2. Anyone reading this post should also read “Why Jagmeet Singh Will Never Be Prime Minister”,

    https://paulosophicalvimplications.org/2021/06/05/why-jagmeet-signgh-will-never-be-prime-minister/

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  3. Another comment on the Dean’s use of *trigger warning* and trigger warnings in general.

    1) The title “Statement on Residential School News” just is a *trigger warning*. If one is feeling too vulnerable to read such a statement, she has the option and intellect to just not read the statement.

    But if the very mention of the subject is triggering, then where is the *trigger warning* that an upsetting title is about to be displayed? Let’s play this notion out because this move does happen and can be a first step in a bonafide slippery slope.

    Ought one speak in euphemisms about Residential Schools to avoid triggering anyone, or in asterisks, or something to that effect? As in the case of the N-word. Would “those schools” we cannot mention lest we upset someone further discussion on a very topic indigenous and their non-indigenous counterpart advocates work to save from erasure? Isn’t the aim TO *trigger* people?

    How would this kind of treading-lightly help surviving students, particularly in light of the discussions concerning TRC? Does the TRC report have a *trigger warning*? How about the site dedicated to documenting stories from residential school survivors, Legacy of Hope? *trigger warning* just in case the word “survivors” doesn’t give away these stories are not sanguine nostalgic remembrances. So, if you’re a delicate sort or want to avoid more negativity in your life, turn away. Turning away is counter to the project. One way to turn people away is to issue a *trigger warning*.

    And how does one ever go to counselling or attend a support group? *trigger warning* Something said here might upset you, and something you say might upset me. Can you imagine a counsellor walking out of a session? You didn’t warn me THAT was coming! Or requiring that her patient issue a *trigger warning* each time he is about to reveal something painful? Granted, caregiver burnout is an occupational hazard. But so are muggings, accidents, traffic stress, and difficult clients when driving a cab — another public facing job with a high burnout rate.

    A charitable use of a ‘kind of’ trigger warning would be to indicate a change in topic. You’ve been sharing a laugh with a friend and you indicate that the next thing you say is of a serious nature. Else in a fit of laughter you remember to mention a mutual friend is on life support. Or, you’re delivering bad news to a friend and you say, solemnly, Are you sitting down? Or, we have to have a talk. You don’t say *trigger warning* I want to talk to you about your husband’s infidelity.

    Do you see here how *trigger warning* makes a mockery of the topic and also makes the topic a “you problem”?

    2)President Mike Mahon did not bracket his statement with a *trigger warning*. And a public notice about the associated vigil was not bracketed by a *trigger warning*.

    3) Constructive advice for the Dean? “My condolences to those affected” is a nice gesture.

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  4. Paul is not as much interested in *trigger warnings* as I am. But he threw me a counter-argument to my position: The Genocide Awareness Project, the annual Pro-Life Club demonstration at our university — among others. For those unfamiliar, these clubs often display a poster (or posters) of aborted fetuses captioned with claims that abortion is genocide.

    The posters tend to create quite a dust up on campuses. A number of students and staff claim, among other things, that these images are harmful to women. Particularly those who’ve had abortions, miscarried, are trying to get pregnant, or who are currently pregnant.

    The powers that be at Uleth accommodate both the Pro-life club and those bothered by the posters by issuing something of a *trigger warning*. The date, time, and location of the display is announced on the notice board. https://www.uleth.ca/notice/notices/abortion-awareness-project-currently-campus#.YM30WS2Q3Sw

    Counter activists come out in numbers on the same day, diverting people from the display area, holding protest signs, or offering brochures for counselling services.

    The upshot is that, being forewarned, people can bypass the display if they want to. But if they either inadvertently or must pass by and are bothered, others are there to help them cope.

    My response to Paul.

    Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada, and the second leading cause in the US. Cancer causes a great deal of pain and suffering for both patients their loved ones. Depictions of cancer are, for some, a painful reminder of the disease. And yet anti-tobacco ads with vivid images of cancer stricken patients appear on television and on cigarette packages.

    No *trigger warnings* are issued for viewers. In fact, viewers are meant to be triggered, often with the blessing of cancer survivors and their families. That some people will be traumatized by the ads is presumably a subordinate consideration to the greater good: dissuading others from tobacco use.

    Mock vehicle carnage at grads and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) videos are also employed to dissuade people from driving under the influence. That the ads will cause some to flash back to their own gruesome accident scenes, whether alcohol was involved or not, is an autonomous effect of this mode of shock-messaging. Again, retraumatizing some accident victims is presumed subordinate to the greater good.

    The aim of Pro-lifers displaying pictures of aborted fetuses is to dissuade some women from having an abortion. Pro-lifers believe they are contributing to the greater good, and so that some are retraumatized by depictions of aborted fetuses is a subordinate consideration to their view that millions of babies are being murdered. If Pro-lifers believe deep down that millions of babies are being murdered, setting up a display in a university is a pretty constrained response.

    Some Pro-lifers are women who have had abortions and regret doing so. They’ve turned the trauma of that experience into activism to spare others their pain. Just as Pro-Choicers turn the trauma of their experiences into activism to spare others their pain. And as the mother who lost a child to a drunk driver attempts to scare the bejeebers out of would-be drunk drivers. And the woman with the tracheotomy undergoing her fifth round of chemo attempts to scare the bejeebers out of teens tempted to smoke.

    So, the very people for whom a *trigger warning* is issued are often the people issuing the *triggers*. And these are people who want to evade you from blocking these triggers, they want you to face up to them. But are you *triggered*?

    If the only people who are *triggered* by these particular messages are the ones who have suffered these particular traumas, it’s a pretty sick game isn’t it? But, perhaps that’s the price to be paid for consciousness raising. Though in this light it seems a pittance to offer a *trigger warning*.

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  5. 1) Colleen Flaherty, “Death Knell for Trigger Warnings?”, Inside Higher Ed, March 21, 2019.

    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/03/21/new-study-says-trigger-warnings-are-useless-does-mean-they-should-be-abandoned

    “Trigger warnings don’t help students, and they might even hurt those grappling with serious trauma. That’s the upshot of a new study on trigger warnings published in Clinical Psychological Science.”

    1.a.) Study referenced in the Higher Ed article:

    Sanson, Mevagh, Deryn Strange, and Maryanne Garry. “Trigger warnings are trivially helpful at reducing negative affect, intrusive thoughts, and avoidance.” Clinical Psychological Science (2019).

    https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2167702619827018?journalCode=cpxa

    2) Another article of 2020: Jones, Payton J., Benjamin W. Bellet, and Richard J. McNally. “Helping or harming? The effect of trigger warnings on individuals with trauma histories.” Clinical Psychological Science 8.5 (2020): 905-917.

    Available in its entirety via this link:

    https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2167702620921341

    “Some trigger warning advocates have suggested that although trigger warnings may not help individuals cope with triggering content, they may help individuals avoid the content altogether. Although avoidance reduces anxiety in the short run (Hofmann & Hay, 2018), it maintains or worsens PTSD in the long run (e.g., Brewin & Holmes, 2003; Dunmore, Clark, & Ehlers, 1999; Foa & Kozak, 1986).”

    “Trigger warnings should serve as an important caution to both clinical and nonclinical professionals who use interventions aimed to improve well-being among trauma survivors. Such practices should be thoroughly vetted via appropriate scientific techniques before they are adopted. Using unvetted interventions is irresponsible to victims of trauma.”

    3)”The Following News Release Contains Potentially Disturbing Content: Trigger Warnings Fail to Help and May Even Harm”, June 9, 2020.

    https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/trigger-warnings-fail-to-help.html

    “”Whether trigger warnings are explicitly harmful was less clear, though Jones and his colleagues did find evidence that trigger warnings increased the belief that their trauma is an essential part of a survivor’s life story, which research has shown is countertherapeutic.”

    “The debate about trigger warnings has raged over the past decade, yet until very recently there was no science or research to inform the practice. “Science is perhaps the most powerful tool we have available for finding the truth. Why did no one think to use it earlier?” Jones concluded.”

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  6. I’m hanging my head as I write this comment given that I’ve dominated this comment thread, but I think this longish article worth the read. Vingiano covers a lot of territory from the phrase *trigger warning*’s origins, to its life on social media, and its appearance in colleges and universities :

    Ali Vingiano, “How The “Trigger Warning” Took Over The Internet, BuzzFeedNews, May 5, 2014.
    https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/alisonvingiano/how-the-trigger-warning-took-over-the-internet

    “Another issue that’s been brought up is that the word ‘trigger’ might be triggering for people who have experienced gun violence.”

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  7. Is there any evidence that these graves are of children or that they are indigenous?

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