Triggering a Response: Speech on Campus

Is it so terrible that in an academic institution, people should have to think about what they are saying?

In September 2015, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote an article for The Atlantic, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” In it, they argued that trigger warnings are a detriment both to learning and mental health. As with so much thinkpiece journalism aimed at an older generation, there’s a heavy undercurrent of contempt for their millenial subjects. I’m going to take a look at the arguments Haidt and Lukianoff present, and also check out their misrepresentation and/or misunderstanding of the subject at hand.

“Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.”

This is a subtle and insidious false definition. “Strong emotional response” has very different connotations to “uncontrolled reliving of trauma such as rape or abuse”. It defines the argument in terms of emotional response; students just don’t want to feel troubled! Here’s a definition of trauma trigger from Wikipedia.

“A trauma trigger is an experience that causes someone to recall a previous traumatic memory, although the trigger itself need not be frightening or traumatic and can be indirectly or superficially reminiscent an earlier traumatic incident.[1] Trauma triggers are related to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition in which people often cannot control the recurrence of emotional or physical symptoms,[1] or of repressed memory.[2][3][4] Triggers can be subtle and difficult to anticipate,[5][1] and can sometimes exacerbate PTSD. A trauma trigger may also be referred to as a trauma stimulus or a trauma stressor.[6]

If we were to replace “strong emotional response” with the more specific version, this is what a trigger warning is:

“Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause survivors of trauma such as rape or abuse to relive their traumatic experiences.”

It suddenly seems a lot less unreasonable to expect. Asking for a heads-up in advance allows survivors to decide for themselves how they wish to interact with the content (in order to best further their own education); it enables them to prepare mentally for the topic arising; and takes very little time or trouble on the part of the professor.

The Atlantic piece turns to a discussion of micro-aggressions. They take up campus guidelines (and I stress the term guidelines rather than rules or laws) written by minority ethnic groups, with the aim of promoting awareness of how irritating and discomforting it can be to be subject to a lifetime of minor annoyances. These might be being repeatedly be asked where you’re from by everyone you meet because you are not white, or anything else which is not explicitly anything-ist on its own, but when it comes from everyone all of the time may actually have pretty significant repercussions. This is also apparently coddling. These students are simply too sensitive, should develop thicker skin. It is they who need to change; in an ideal world they would just get over the constant implications that they are less legitimate citizens and that their skin colour justifies an interrogation from anyone.


“The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”

I think a really important distinction needs to be made here between an idealist aim in which people are more aware of the frustrations of others and don’t unthinkingly add to them, and one in which people are never allowed to feel uncomfortable. Clearly, people are allowed to feel uncomfortable; the white men writing this Atlantic article pretty obviously aren’t comfortable with the way things are going on campus.

But once again, if you replace “make some uncomfortable” with something a little bit more specific, it’s a lot less sinister.

“The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from conscious or unconscious prejudice because they have educated their peers to recognise those behaviours in themselves.”

I don’t see a lot wrong with that as an aim. Certainly, there are misguided ways of seeking to achieve it; the handful of cherry-picked anecdotes in the article make that plain.

“It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

Good? Is it so terrible that in an academic institution people should have to think about what they are saying? Again; there are certainly issues with how this happens in practice. Callout culture has become a norm, leftist social media outrage is slowly catching up with the carefully practised (and much more influential) art form that right wing print media has developed over the last several decades. But then it is typical that those who are not suffering from one would only see the rise of the other which does in some way impinge upon them, whatever their relative importance overall.


The next stage of the article attempts to imply a causality between rising rates of mental illness and the increased “coddling” and social media mob mentality at colleges. Bafflingly, they don’t attempt for a second to evaluate any other potential causes. The incredible levels of debt, the difficulty of finding employment even with a degree, the increasing strain for higher academic achievements as standards rise, and many other factors are all completely absent from their understanding of campus mental health. It must be because people are trying to help that the problem is getting worse.

Later in the article they argue that because therapy for PTSD and related conditions involves exposure to triggers, trigger warnings aren’t necessary.

“Students who call for trigger warnings may be correct that some of their peers are harboring memories of trauma that could be reactivated by course readings. But they are wrong to try to prevent such reactivations. Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation. Classroom discussions are safe places to be exposed to incidental reminders of trauma”

This passage starts with the odd assumption that the people calling for trigger warnings are not those “harboring memories of trauma”. It goes on to baldly state that students with PTSD should just get on with it and have an episode in the classroom. There’s also a subtle minimising of graphic content, which become mere “incidental reminders”, as though Ovid’s vivid description of the rape and assault of Philomela can be put in the category of incidental reminder. (The writers were incredulous that students felt Metamorphoses warranted a warning.)


The rape of Philomela

Here’s an excerpt from the NHS page on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that deals with Exposure Therapy.

“Exposure therapy is a form of CBT particularly useful for people with phobias or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

In such cases, talking about the situation is not as helpful and you may need to learn to face your fears in a methodical and structured way through exposure therapy.

Exposure therapy involves starting with items and situations that cause anxiety, but anxiety that you feel able to tolerate. You need to stay in this situation for one to two hours or until the anxiety reduces for a prolonged period by a half.”

Let’s be clear: colleges and universities are for many things, but they are not clinics. They do not exist to teach students how to deal with PTSD. The classroom is not a “safe environment” and does not provide a “methodical and structured” way to deal with illness. One of the ways to mitigate that, for students who are unwell? Trigger warnings; so that they can be prepared and ready for a discussion on graphic moments and images. It’s essentially a courtesy, a label. Students skip classes for better and worse reasons all the time; if someone felt that they needed to not be at that discussion for the sake of their health, would that be so much more lamentable than someone skipping it because they have a terrible hangover?

There is another thread underpinning much of this debate and it is the classic ‘offendedness’ discussion.

“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 public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.”

Correct; often people criticising the offensive nature of others comments are suggesting that they were not just hurtful but actually wrong to speak as they did. This is a good thing; it is a substantive critique of someone’s ideas to say that they are actively damaging to an entire group. It’s not about being angry that someone disagrees with you, it’s about challenging someone to recognise the import of their words and either amend them to better reflect their meaning or face the criticism if they are intentionally dismissing/dehumanising/degrading groups of people. If you say something which appears to mean: x group isn’t worth discussing / understanding / helping / respecting; don’t be surprised when people from x group are unhappy with you for having apparently meant that. If you didn’t mean it, then you can clarify your meaning and learn something about how better to communicate the same ideas as before, without appearing to dismiss people.

If this kind of change is what Haidt and Lukianoff are concerned about, their real concern is simply that groups they are not used to considering now have a voice and will use it. Their ideas and expressions are ultimately unaffected. The controversy stirred up about these issues seems to be a narrative of white liberal professors who are suddenly being challenged where they thought they were safe from challenge, in their own institutions and by their own students. They now have to “think twice”; because they are not used to thinking once about the perspective of hitherto marginalised groups.

3 thoughts on “Triggering a Response: Speech on Campus

  1. Thanks for writing this. I’ve been getting increasingly irritated by the tone that this debate has taken in recent weeks. It feels as if everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of criticising students – The Observer and Prospect Magazine recently published similar pieces.

    But nevertheless, I do think there are issues that remain. The first is that the laudable aims of ideas like ‘safe space’ can be abused. For example, the Islamic Society at Goldsmiths College used precisely the language of ‘safe space’ when protesting the presence of non-violent, anti-Sharia speaker Marayam Namazie. That is an abuse of the term in my view.

    Also, ‘No Platform’ policies have now morphed from ‘let’s not invite people who have said x’ to ‘let us disinvite people scheduled to speak, because they have said x’. This is deeply problematic.

    Worse, at some universities we have what can only be described as ‘denouncement’. A society at Bristol University recently posted a statement here:

    Sarah Ditum’s invitation was rescinded not because she was transphobic, but because someone had accused her of being so! The society took no view on whether the allegation had any foundation or not – the accusation itself was enough to stop Ditum from speaking. That’s shocking, the sort of paranoia we usually see in dictatorships, and it’s borne of a fear of being accused of wrong-thinking. Bristol Student PEN are, I think, going to remedy this by inviting Sarah back to speak.

    So while I agree that much of the criticism of students is actually reactionary and revealing of those doing the criticism… I do think there is still a case to answer.

    • Thanks for reading!
      I totally agree that there are people who will use these concepts in ways which are antithetical to the ideals of free expression; I’m more interested (in this article) in defending the concepts themselves when for some people they constitute an unacceptable breach of what university and free expression is about. I’m also hesitant to directly address incidents of this type which have occurred with other university societies, because it can be so hard to get a clear picture of what actually occurred and why. I feel the nuance of each individual situation is key to my view of it; I’m always suspicious of a black and white hardline approach in which either a) anyone can be shut down at any time or b) the university or society or individual responsible for inviting a speaker is 100% infallible.

      • I’m very much with you in the defence of both trigger warnings and safe spaces.

        This may be being picky, but should the ‘fallibility’ of the society doing the inviting be relevant? What if, for example, if someone were to invite Julie Bindel and Germain Greer to speak in York Central Hall an event entitled “Are Trans Women Real Women?” This would clearly be deeply offensive to trans people and probably organised by someone deeply ‘fallible’ who intended to cause offence and discomfort to trans people. But I’d argue that such an event should go ahead anyway.

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