The winners of New Philosopher Writers’ Award XIX ‘Life’ are: Winner: Australian academic and last quarter’s runner-up Phiona Stanley for…
Last year, I had a piece in The New York Times explaining my use of trigger warnings as a professor. The piece garnered some sympathetic responses and reasonable differences of opinion. But there were also a lot of people yelling in my inbox. (“Yo Kate…Tell Your Campus Cupcakes to MAN UP or PERSON UP and GROW A SPINE!” “Thanks for helping create an even further coddled and overprotected generation. I can already hear…the whining they’ll exhibit through life thanks to your stupidity.”) This piece generated more hate mail than the not inconsiderable pile I received after a New York Times op-ed on white male aggression and Ferguson. As popular as this made me with a certain demographic, trigger warnings seem a more reliable source of righteous – and therefore, one suspects, often pleasurable – indignation.
It is natural to wonder why though. This is, in the end, a relatively minor issue about pedagogical best practices. And giving these warnings is hardly high drama. As I explained in my piece, it merely involves adding an extra line in my weekly email to the class, for example: “A quick heads-up: this week’s reading contains a graphic description of sexual violence and torture.” I find myself doing this a few times a semester, when I cover topics like sexual objectification, pornography, and misogyny. The aim is not to encourage students with a history of trauma (such as rape, abuse, and incest, as well as military combat) to skip the relevant readings or subsequent class discussions. Rather, I want them to get the most out of them. Having been forewarned, affected students may choose to prepare by, for example, engaging in techniques for managing anxiety. And this can in turn help them to avoid states like hyper-arousal, panic attacks, and the fog of dissociation in which the self gets swallowed.
In the opposition to trigger warnings, one idea predominates: real life does not offer them. Or, for a slogan: life is triggering. The thought being, students can’t rely on being so warned in comparable contexts going forward. So the practice constitutes objectionable ‘coddling’. A historicised variant: I had to endure worse, without trigger warnings, safe spaces, or any of these novelties. I suffered, but I coped, somehow. And hence, so should others.
But the conclusions do not follow. They are total non sequiturs. You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, nor a ‘was’, nor an ‘elsewhere’ (to adapt Hume’s famous insight). Perhaps college students today are demanding or receiving greater sensitivity from their professors. And this may be entirely as it should be. Why let a – quite possibly – imperfect past be the enemy of improvement? Similarly, life contains lots of grim realities: human cruelty, harassment, huntsman spiders, etc. And yet I try to keep my classroom free of these, and do not regard it as a wasted opportunity for forcible acclimation.
Won’t students be spoiled, though? Won’t they become reliant on getting such warnings? As well as being speculative – and suspiciously reminiscent of the conservative line on welfare programs – this argument over-generates. By this logic, we ought to abolish university lectures too, lest students become dependent on special forums for disseminating content, rather than learning to just search online, as they will have to in the future. And even if the transition were a difficult one, aren’t such transitions part of life also? Finally, the background theory of moral development seems faulty. It is not showing children kindness that spoils them. It is treating them as if they deserve more of it than others.
All of this is, or ought to be, so obvious as might give us pause here. I am not saying there are no good arguments against trigger warnings; indeed, I believe there are, although I think the case in favour of them is stronger. But why are such bad ones – of the ‘life is triggering’ variety – enjoying so much currency?
I have argued elsewhere, in a piece co-authored with Jason Stanley on the recent student protests, that this sort of backlash is politically driven. The notion of coddling serves an ideological function. In being described as coddled, students are belittled and feminised. Their complaints become less credible; they can be dismissed as childish whiners. I would add that a recent reduction in upward mobility for millennial college graduates can then be ascribed to their own immaturity. They are moving back in with their parents not because of economic decline and a lack of job opportunities, but because they are babies. This is essentially an exercise in victim-blaming.
But the ideology of coddling also taps into a broader psychological tendency, of the kind that gives the idiom “kids these days…” its ready intelligibility. It need not be generational though. There seems to be a general tendency to resent those going through similar hardships, but having an easier time of it. And this is so even when the resentful parties are actively complaining about how hard it was for them. To which the proper response would seem: I’m sorry. Let me do what I can, where I can, to spare others.
Why is this not the general reaction? Is it that people feel envy, or something like it, on behalf of their former selves? Or is it that they view themselves as the default, emotionally speaking, such that anyone’s wanting better than they had is perceived as demanding, entitled, presumptuous? A little of both, I suspect; but in any case, it is an ordinary meanness (to echo Judith Shklar’s notion of an ‘ordinary vice’). It seems to bill sympathy as a commodity, and attempts to compete for it, across different times, places, social contexts, and relationships.
But this is a peculiar way of looking at things, as well as a mean-spirited one. Sympathy is not a strictly bounded resource, for which you need to get in line. Nor could you, anyway, even if you tried to; for there is no central repository for sympathy, and no way of dispensing it even-handedly to every deserving party. It is not just that sympathy isn’t a zero sum game. There is no game – just pointless scorekeeping.
Our social and material position delimits those who we can actively show sympathy towards, as opposed to merely doling out commodities. Both seem important. (That effective altruism hence leaves much of actual altruism out of the equation, and condones a certain amount of blatant hard-heartedness, bears further reflection.) As a college professor, I can be kind to my students in ways which are easy to do, but not to redistribute. Using trigger warnings is just a small measure. But I don’t believe that it squanders resources.
I began with some of the responses my piece received; let me end with another. This email was from a seventy-one-year-old man, who had been abused throughout his childhood:
I read your op-ed at 4am and it astonished me… The very idea that a teacher or professor might alert students is completely new to me and you are completely correct to do it when it occurs to you. I glanced at some of the reader comments and I noticed how many people are opposed to trigger notices. Well, there is nothing new among millennials having PTSD and it is silly to suppose this need is something new. Early trauma victims learn to dissociate, so, upon reflection, I can say that I never was present for a single day in school from kindergarten through high school and it took me eight-and-a-half years to complete my undergraduate degree… I was absent the whole time. Maybe if someone had intentionally said or indicated that I was safe, it could have been different.
Would that everyone were as capable of wanting better for other people. This is a voice which exposes ordinary meanness by being so strikingly, movingly free of it.
Kate Manne is assistant professor of the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University. Prior to that, she was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows from 2011 to 2013. Manne completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Melbourne, and was subsequently awarded a General Sir John Monash scholarship to undertake her graduate work at MIT. In 2015 Manne was awarded the Public Philosophy Op-Ed Prize by the APA.