One thing that makes it hard to talk seriously about politics with Freddie deBoer is his dogged insistence that none of his antagonists on the left are willing to talk seriously about politics.
Actually, let me rephrase that, because I’m actually not just talking about one thing here, but two — his insistence that his interlocutors are willfully misrepresenting reality, and his insistence that they refuse to address crucial questions raised by their positions. I think of the first as an “everybody insists…” move, and the second as a “nobody will address…” maneuver. I’ve seen him go back to those two wells over and over — everybody’s making obviously false claims, and nobody will grapple with obvious dilemmas.
The last time I tried to engage with deBoer here on the blog, it didn’t go well. But yesterday he wrote a piece on trigger warnings, a subject that I think is really important, so I’m going to give it a whirl again, and this time I’m going to take his “everybody insists” and “nobody will address” claims head on.
I’m not going to insist! I am going to address! We’ll see how it goes.
Everybody Insists #1:
“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, with absolute confidence, that “no one is talking about actually regulating content!” Which just is not true … there have always been campus leftists who think that many types of speech that we generally acknowledge as legitimate political expression should be banned. … Stop telling me from the media bubble you live in that these attitudes don’t exist, just because they resemble a conservative stereotype.”
Yes. Those attitudes exist. There are people on the left who want to restrict certain speech. Why won’t we admit it? Well, I just did, and plenty of others have, but yeah, sure, we don’t often shout it from the rooftops.
Why not? Partly because the people who want to actually ban speech aren’t particularly powerful in, nor representative of, the broader left campus movement. Partly, in this instance, because trigger warnings are speech, not speech suppression, so the question doesn’t seem all that germane. And partly because the campus left’s critics are really really eager right now to cast any left criticism of others’ speech as opposition to free speech.
I’ve written about this before, a bunch of times. About how most of Jonathan Chait’s examples of hostility to free speech were actually examples of people engaging in political debate. About how Wendy Kaminer accuses those who call her a bigot of committing acts of censorship. More recently, in the latest high-profile attack on campus PC (an Atlantic magazine cover story) free speech activist Greg Lukianoff said that “a claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a … demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.”
This is ridiculous. Describing someone’s words as offensive isn’t censorship, or a call for censorship. It’s criticism. And the fact that civil libertarians have become so quick to conflate the two is to my mind an incredibly ominous development.
So yes, there are people on the campus left who want to suppress others’ speech. But no, they’re not representative of the movement, and many of the media’s favorite examples of this supposed trend are fabricated or distorted beyond recognition. So sure, I’ll say what you want me to say, but not without making it absolutely clear that I’m not signing on to a larger fraudulent narrative.
Nobody Will Address #1:
“Next, the relationship between PTSD and trigger warnings. There’s absolutely no clarity on a very basic question: are trigger warnings intended to help those who suffer from PTSD? … When we talk about ‘triggers,’ are we talking about PTSD? I have read thousands and thousands of words on this subject, and I have no idea.”
I was, I believe, the first American professor to share his syllabus trigger warning publicly. I’ve written in support of classroom trigger warnings in Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and The American Historian. I’ve talked about them on NPR, and been interviewed about them a bunch of places. My own syllabus trigger warning has been adopted or adapted by professors at a long and growing list of universities. So while I can’t speak for everyone on this subject, I think it’s fair to say I’m not just some random guy.
So here’s my attempt to provide clarity:
I’m not a mental health professional. I’m not competent to diagnose or treat PTSD, and it’s not my place to do so. But as I wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “it’s not just trauma survivors who may be distracted or derailed by shocking or troubling material.”
My own trigger warning has been shaped by my reading on the subject of trauma, and by my conversations with survivors of trauma, but it’s not intended as a clinical intervention and it’s not intended to be used only by PTSD sufferers.
Nobody Will Address #2:
“Nor is there any notion of how to handle cheating and abuse. … What are we supposed to do with students who frivolously claim to have suffered trauma? … What do we do to decide who can fairly claim to have suffered trauma, and access the special dispensation that might come with it?”
My syllabus trigger warning doesn’t provide students who invoke it with any special privileges, so this isn’t really an issue for me — and as I said above, my text has been pretty widely adopted, so it’s not an issue for those professors either.
Speaking more generally, there are three paths a professor can take when asked for an accommodation from a student — offer the same accommodation to everyone, require that the requesting student provide proof of need, or apply their own judgment. I can see any of those approaches working in a trigger warning context.
Everyone Insists #2:
“I have been told directly by people who are in favor of trigger warnings that to attempt to determine if someone really has PTSD, or some other, vaguer form of trauma, is to ‘revictimize’ them. So what are educators and institutions supposed to do? The closest thing I get to a response is ‘no one would do that.’ No one would do that? Really? No college student would take advantage of a special dispensation you’ve created that inarguably gives them a certain amount of transactional power in their interactions with an instructor?”
Of course there will be students who try to game any system. But for the reasons I laid out above, that fact is irrelevant under some trigger warning schemes, and addressable under others.
Nobody Will Address #3:
“Then there’s the fact that, in the actual medical literature on PTSD, triggers are discussed not as intellectual subjects like rape or war but as sensorial impressions like a sound or a small or a play of light. Or the fact that there’s no extant medical literature that demonstrates that trigger warnings actually have provide demonstrable relief to the people who suffer PTSD. That stuff isn’t even discussed.”
Again, I’m not a clinician. But here’s an article in a psychiatric journal about Second World War veterans’ combat PTSD being triggered by fiftieth-anniversary commemorations of the end of the war. There are plenty of others like it. As for the question of whether trigger warnings could provide relief for PTSD sufferers, it’s my understanding — and again, I’m not an expert — that many practitioners recommend controlled, managed exposure to potential triggers as a way of reducing their potency. Controlled exposure to potentially traumatic material is exactly what my own trigger warning is designed to facilitate.
Nobody Will Address #4:
“Finally, there’s the rhetorical condition of the discussion we have. I think this piece from Lindy West emblemizes it:
Maybe we can all get flippant and condescending about trigger warnings after we build a world where more than 3% of rapes lead to conviction, where we don’t shame and blame people for their own victimisation, where men don’t feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where millions of people aren’t moving through life yoked with massive, secret traumas.
This strikes me as a classic example of a common progressive category error: this terrible injustice exists (and it does), so therefore you have to get on board with this heavy-handed policy that cannot possibly actually reduce that injustice. I am totally unclear as to how trigger warnings actually combat any of the problems that West identifies in that paragraph.”
West’s claim isn’t that trigger warnings will combat those problems, but that hostility to trigger warnings — specifically “flippant and condescending” hostility — stems from the same societal sources that they do. As she writes: “It’s almost as though, coded as feminine and largely associated with rape victims, the antipathy toward trigger warnings is about something else entirely.”
What she’s saying is that in order to have a serious conversation of the merits and demerits of trigger warnings, we must first acknowledge that a lot of the antipathy toward them is driven by deeper-rooted misogyny. You can agree with that argument or disagree with it, but don’t claim that she doesn’t make her case.
Nobody Will Address #4:
“How exactly is anyone supposed to have a conversation after a statement like that is made? How are we supposed to sort good from better when the rhetorical cudgels of rape, victim blaming, male entitlement, and secret trauma have been deployed?”
Like this. Like we’re doing right now. You have a conversation. You talk about the issue, instead of (or in addition to) complaining about how we talk about the issue.
Nobody Will Address #5:
“I genuinely believe that there is a meaningful common ground that people can find on this issue. But I have no idea how to find it, when as soon as you raise concerns with the practice, you’re relegated to the role of victim blamer and trauma denier. There’s no way to address this issue constructively under those conditions. None.”
If you want to have a constructive conversation about trigger warnings, Freddie, here we are. If you want to dig in and talk about pedagogy and student vs faculty power and classroom management and PTSD, that’s a conversation that’s happening, and it’s one you’re invited to join. If you want to join, join. If you don’t want to join, don’t. But don’t claim that nobody else is willing, because plenty of us are.