This September’s issue of The Atlantic featured a cover story titled “the Coddling of the American Mind.” If you haven’t read it, you might still have heard about it, or at least, have come across its argument through the myriad print and social media reactions which have followed its publication. The article’s reach was phenomenal, and it is fair to say that public reactions ranged from supportive to adulatory.
To sum up the argument of its authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, US academic campuses suffer from a crisis of ‘vindictive protectiveness‘, causing students to forgo intellectual rigor, critical thinking, and moral fortitude in the name of ’emotional comfort.’ This creeping phenomenon, the authors claim, manifests itself particularly through trigger warnings and the policing of microagressions.
The article is ridden with generalizations, shortcuts, logical fallacies and crude political bias. For all their claimed commitment to critical thinking and intellectual rigor, Lukianoff & Haidt don’t seem to know how to integrate either into their writing. Perhaps a later article will focus on dismantling their fallacies one by one, but today I want to focus on what is perhaps their largest mistake – their gross misconstruction of trigger warnings.
The authors of the Coddling… affirm that the spread of trigger warnings in university settings is problematic and should be discouraged. Trigger warnings, or, the prefacing of an object of study with a description of its potential trauma-activating themes, are, according to them, instances of ‘fortune-telling’, and ‘catastrophizing’. Anticipating that things will turn out badly, they say, is not only hurting intellectual inquiry, but is also harmful to students because it reinforces mental belief patterns about the source of trauma. Rather than avoiding the triggering element, they argue, students would do better by facing it bravely and adopting cognitive-behavioural techniques firmly based in logical reasoning.
The first issue with this approach is that it shows that the authors have absolutely no understanding of what constitutes ‘trauma.’ Throughout the article, they consistently equate symptoms of PTSD with ’emotional discomfort’ or hurt feelings. But trigger warnings are not about comfort. They are about medically documented conditions of mental distress which manifest themselves through a variety of symptoms that can be as powerful as to create a propensity for suicide and self-harm. To equate, as Lukianoff and Haidt do, a mental health condition of that severity to being squeamish constitutes an ignorant and irresponsibly harmful mistake that the editors of the Atlantic should never have enabled.
Another important problem with the Coddling… authors’ argument is that it takes away agency from the potentially triggered individual. The authors seem to forget that a trigger warning is just that: a warning. It is not an obligation to stop reading or leave the room if one feels like they could be a target to the trigger, it is not even a suggestion that they should do so! It is, rather, a way to impart the information necessary for each individual to make a considered decision as to whether they believe that they should confront themselves to the trigger or not.
Making this kind of decision might depend on various factors: Is this a safe environment? Are people around me trustworthy? How important is the triggering object to the furtherance of my education and my understanding of the subject at hand? Do I feel like my mental health is strong enough to withstand this experience today? The appropriately forewarned individual might thus decide to stay or withdraw, depending on this multifaceted evaluation. Respecting trigger warnings means that we understand that no one but the student is competent to legitimately make this evaluation, and that we agree that she is entitled to make this choice for herself. Trigger warnings are empowering.
But Lukianoff and Haidt believe in shoving recovery firmly down the student’s throat – regardless of whether she believes that the classroom is the best place and this day the right time to begin shock treatment for PTSD. They claim that students will necessarily benefit from this forced treatment, administered for their own good, and this regardless of their consent. They assert that this is the very essence of Education. But the picture of Education they paint is a profoundly ableist one.
It is a vision of education that excludes frailty, neuro-divergence, and mental health disabilities. It is a vision that assumes that only those who are able to behave in socially-acceptable ways deserve a seat in the classroom. It is a vision that is scornfully hyper-rationalist and reeks of the times of the patriarchal prosecution of hysteria. It is a vision that inescapably favours those whose race, gender, class and sexual orientation made them less likely to encounter and be affected by traumatic experiences, at the expense of those who were inherently more likely to do so. This is not merely another instance of white men in positions of power policing a space and dictating what goes and what doesn’t – not just how others should behave but how they should feel and think– although it evidently is as well. But it is profoundly discriminatory, promoting a utilitarian vision of the human condition, in which only the most efficient and productive, the neuronormative and socially apt among us are entitled to knowledge.
Because their argument is so philosophically untenable, Lukianoff and Haidt resort to the most extreme examples to prove their point. They describe, for instance, how a law professor complained of “the difficulties of teaching rape law in the age of trigger warnings. Some students, she wrote, have pressured their professors to avoid teaching the subject in order to protect themselves and their classmates from potential distress.” This sensationalist example, analogized to a “medical student fearing the sight of blood” obfuscates the fact that an appropriate and sensitive use of trigger-warnings is in fact what could have solved the conflict experienced by the law professor. At the law school I attended in England, for example, our Criminal Law professor, who was certainly not known for his radical leanings, warned us in advance that the sexual assault lecture was coming up and asked one of his female PhD students to deliver the lecture while he was not present in the classroom. At the law school I am attending in the United States, our Evidence professor gave the class advance warning, instituted a laptop ‘lids down’ policy of privacy in the classroom, and allowed us to ‘opt out’ of class discussions/cold calls ‘no questions asked’ for every class where sexual assault was discussed.
In both of these cases, a large majority of the class remained and confronted themselves to the difficult material. Maybe for some, or even for most, the material although sensitive was not triggering so there was no need for them to even consider leaving. Maybe for others the material was potentially triggering but they made the choice to confront it nonetheless, perhaps thanks to the trust-enhancing atmosphere created by the professors’ wise choices. Sometimes being cautioned means feeling heard, acknowledged, our experience validated, and that can be enough to make a space safer. And maybe, a few students chose not to attend those classes. Because they felt that they were not ready. Maybe they will be ready at a later point in the semester, or in their life, and they will confront themselves to the material in the way of their choosing. And maybe they will never be ready, and skip this area entirely, and specialize in other types of law. And that will be ok as well.