Given that my current reading project is a book that was actually banned on the grounds that it offended people's religious beliefs, I should say something about the current discussion of touchy students in higher ed. I will begin by noting the current mania for "trigger warnings" and whatnot is hardly universal. Much of it is certainly the work of a few touchy and over-sheltered types. Moreover, while the current dialogue is largely focused on touchy liberals who try to live up to neo-Victorian stereotypes of being so fragile that they need fainting couches, the conservative side of the culture war has its own share of whiners who are afraid to touch books that offend their beliefs. And it is almost certainly true that the biggest problem is not students who are too touchy to read, but rather the perennial problem of students who are too lazy to read, or faculty who assign less and less reading not because they are afraid of complaints but because it is easier to run a simple class and give multiple-choice tests.
(Oh, and before you tell me that when I question trigger warnings I'm being insensitive to people with PTSD, I will refer you to an article by a psychiatrist finishing her residency. The rhetoric from the pro-trigger camp does not match the clinical reality of PTSD.)
That said, the problem is not one of numbers but rather the powers available to a minority of whiners and the ass-covering tendencies of those in power. For instance, Laura Kipnis: I disagree with a great many things that Kipnis said in her controversial March essay. I have no particular desire to defend what she said. I think she has a blinkered view of what can go wrong in sexual relationships between people on different rungs of the same hierarchy, and I would not want to translate her views into policy in any institution that I would be affiliated with.
So what? She still has the right to say it, and the mere fact that she is wrong does not make her dangerous to individual health and well-being. There was no reason to drag her though a Title IX investigation for a mere article. It might be dangerous to an institution if her views were turned into policy, but I hear all sorts of dumb ideas in meetings, ideas that would probably be horrible for the institution if translated into policy. Merely mentioning those ideas is not the sort of danger from which I am entitled to some sort of protection, and we don't drag people in front of an investigator for airing those ideas in meetings. The only harm that they might do by merely speaking is to elevate my blood pressure, and my institution already provides me with health insurance to cover my stress tests and headache medication. If I wish to defend myself from more than speech, and work against the implementation of those ideas, it is my responsibility to get involved in institutional governance, and so I do. Given this distinction between speech and action, it is inexcusable that Kipnis was dragged through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy (at great excuse to the institution) just because some whiners complained that her column made them feel unsafe. Unsafe? Because of a column in the Chronicle? I cannot think of a more benign venue in which to publish! (Indeed, I have published my own bit of heresy there.) And then the same process was inflicted on an academic Senator who spoke in her defense? This is not the creation of a supportive environment for victims of assault and harassment.
If it were just one person being dragged before one investigator because of one institution gone a bit silly, well, lots of really bad things happen, but not all of them are trends. What makes me take this latest wave a bit more seriously is that a vocal minority can effect policy. For instance, why would the student government at UCSB (the school from which I got my PhD, a school that I dearly love) pass resolutions for trigger warnings? Are they that fragile? Now, I can assure you that your average UCSB student is NOT lobbying for trigger warnings. They're too busy partying and surfing. However, it appears that among those with political skills and ambitions, the neo-Victorian influence is significant. I don't fear the average undergrad, but I do fear movements with talented organizers.
For that matter, while I actually think there are some good guidelines in these documents (e.g. don't make assumptions about people's backgrounds), I am disturbed by some of the guidelines that go to expression of personal opinion rather than false assumptions about other people. In particular, the document urges people to not call America "The land of opportunity." Now, I agree there are enough injustices in the US to merit a rebuttal to "land of opportunity" statements. At the same time, I know that there are reasonable and informed people who have nonetheless offered statements like that in the course of their academic duties. Not too long ago I was in a presentation by a business professor who is a woman of color (i.e. not a person who is unaffected by discrimination) and she said something similar in the context of the climate for entrepreneurship in the US. Now, perhaps you disagree with her. Perhaps you even have an evidence-based case for disagreeing with her (e.g. an analysis of data on class mobility). You should make that case. You should challenge her. You should debate with her. But she should not be judged guilty of some sort of harm to others merely for offering that controversial opinion.
Again, academia is not crawling with people looking to ruin the career of anyone who says "land of opportunity." We don't have to keep AAUP Committee A on speed-dial in our daily work. But it is disconcerting that when the touchy types show up they aren't always mere shouters on Twitter. (Seriously, stay away from Twitter. 140 characters aren't conducive to intellectual discourse.) Rather, they are often close to levers of power. That should frighten us. That should move us to speak passionately and defiantly and under our real names.
What prompted me to write this long post full of ire? This morning I read an op-ed co-authored by the President of Northwestern University, Morton Schapiro. He wrote in defense of the millenials calling for greater sensitivity. I will state up front that I personally respect him. Although I have never met him, when I was an undergraduate at USC he was the Dean of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, and it was well known that he taught a freshman GE course. I greatly admired that even then, and as I have gone on in higher ed I have come to appreciate how rare it is for the people on the higher rungs to keep a foot in the classroom, and hence maintain first-hand exposure to what is actually happening. So I admire him as a person. I will even go so far as to say that he has good points about millenials pushing for people to be more respectful in their interactions with others. However, when these respectable impulses for inclusion morph into fear of speech, and even calls for censorship, they go too far.
But why am I singling him out when this matter has been discussed by a great many people? Because he's the President of Northwestern, the same school that dragged Laura Kipnis through an inexcusable process and then tried to censor a journal issue on bioethics edited by Alice Dreger, a former Northwestern faculty member who resigned in protest. It is clear that Northwestern has a beam in its eye on the matter of free speech, and yet it is trying to point to the speck in other people's discourses. (And, yes, I just quoted another book that people have tried to ban.) Go ahead and consider the valid points made in that op-ed, but don't forget that it is something of a smoke screen.