I was listening to an episode of The Diane Rehm Show recently, in which the panelists were discussing free speech, honest debate, and meaningful discourse on college campuses and the disservice some people may be doing by actively avoiding trigger warnings outright instead of confronting them actively and openly. The conversation also discussed the legacy of those who are memorialized in monuments and building names who may have questionable pasts.
I’m ambivalent on the topic, as I am a deeply-flawed human being who has a colorful past and who can certainly be offensive. In fact, to my genuine surprise, I was recently branded a “bigot” – granted, by someone who has some sociopolitical values that strike me as inhumane – but rather than saying “no, I’m not!” I have begun seriously questioning the circumstances that led up to that branding and what would have caused that person to react with such vehement verbal violence toward me when I have dedicated myself in many ways to fundamentally opposing bigotry. I’d like to think that generally speaking my words and actions are inconsistent with those of a bigot, but do I not have a moral imperative to question that assumption, actively and transparently? I feel I must have the self-awareness and presence of mind to know that I am a flawed person and need to respond to such critique in a prosocial, proactive, thoughtful way.
Thomas Jefferson intellectually and actually achieved something in the late 18th century to create a framework that has given us the necessary tools to uplift, celebrate, and recognize the criticality of diversity, free speech, egalitarianism, and human rights. It is ironic and worth discussing that Jefferson did not practice what he preached. We have some record that he struggle din some ways with this idea, but as one of the commentators said on the show, we should not pretend that “people are a product of their times” is a valid justification when we know there were people during that time that chose to act differently and more consistently with modern evolved understanding of equality. In places during the founding of this country, at the table, there were those who chose to act differently, who articulated that – for example – slavery was a scourge upon our species and should be actively eradicated. It’s worth us seriously questioning decisions to the contrary. Jefferson was certainly not a perfect person – “Which of us is perfect?” asks DeVito’s Mickey Bergman in Mamet’s Heist – but do we tear down the Jefferson Memorial?
I don’t have answers in this situation, but I do want to participate in the debate. I want children and college students and the future generation to engage in this debate, because ultimately it’s their call. If symbols and characters and stories that I find benign or relevant, deeply and materially offend the future generation, I hope that they will have serious questions before they tear down elements of my present, but I also recognize that preserving something simply because it is old or a memorial is not worthwhile.
“Trigger warning” is being abused. It refers to trauma stimulus, a situation or experience that is related, directly or superficially, in the mind of a person with post-traumatic stress. When the traumatized individual smells, for example, an odor directly related to an attack, the traumatized individual may experience post-traumatic stress. This is a serious situation that deserves our compassion and understanding. However, being bothered by something that irritates or offends you is not the same as experiencing post-traumatic stress. As educators, we do have some responsibility to raise awareness and help provide safety for individuals who may genuinely need assistance in avoiding unnecessary post-traumatic stress. However, as with all things educational, thoughtful scaffolding is not a barricade between the student and learning. Students who are offended by racism, for example, as most any thinking person would be, cannot deepen their understandings of the source and nature of racism without discussing and debating it. In the queer community, I sometimes see social media admonishments that cisgender or heterosexual bias is a “trigger” followed immediately by raging statements of fury directed at cisgender people and heterosexual people. I sometimes see monotheists announce that bias against their religions are “triggers” for them, followed immediately by raging statements of vitriol directed at other religions or non-believers.
There is a difference, I believe, between building insulating walls around yourself and committing to your own narrow ideology and worldview, and honestly raising awareness about bias, prejudice, and discrimination.
I’m torn. I like controversy; hell I foment it, and I am the last person on the planet that is obsessed with the preservation of the extant on that basis alone. I write actively against that idea in Insurrection. However, I do think we academics have an obligation to promote discourse. Several of the speakers on the Diane Rehm show indicated that colleges are the ideal places for such significant debate. I cannot help but get a little Insurrectionist / Seditionist here: That’s why liberal arts should be the foundation of the academic tradition. It it insufficient to say at 18 years old, “this is who I am, I know what is right and wrong, and you all must conform to my world view.”
I find that this connects back to the last blog post I made about higher educaiton in which I excoriated the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan for saying “this is not a day care.” Ironically, I’d wager thathe and I probablya gree that discomfort and discourse and debate are essential for growth and are needed more than ever and that every little offense should not be silenced. I don’t debate that and if he had simply said that, I wouldn’t have had to take him to task. But that isn’t what he said. He basically said “go pound salt” to a kid, “I don’t care that you’re offended, I don’t care that you’re hurt.”
Discourse and debate is good for your growth. We shouldn’t insulate students from controversy. But as a good mama bear, he should know that in order for the cub to understand the big wide world, the cub can’t be caged or thrown off the cliff. Oppression and abandonment are extremes of pedagogy as well as cub-raising. These are unloving acts and not a teacher response. What we say is “why?” What offended you? Why are you offended? What troubles you? What made you uncomfortable? Why? How? What biases exist? What conditions existed? What situations and ideas does this relate to? Let’s have a debate. Let’s have discussion.
President Piper didn’t appear the least bit interested in meaningful and thoughtful discourse about the student’s concern about the pulpit proselytizing based on I Corinthians. He didn’t seem the slightest bit inclined to validate the student and instead jumped to chastise and lower him. That is not consistent with the deeper discussion that can lead to better understanding that we’re talking about here. Did the student have a point? Was there a different interpretation? Was the student encouraged to read more? To research the origins of the passage? To analyze and compare? To engage with the original speaker? To develop a defense for the alternative position? Where was the teaching? Where was the learning opportunity? Where was the authentic acknowledgement of that student’s individual perspective as an aspiring scholar and the guidance to make him a more robust thinker?
A loving educator does those things. That’s entirely consistent with the message put forward in the Diane Rehm episode: Debate, dissent, these are critical to growth. Serious, meaningful roots in philosophy, pedagogy in my case, debates, discussions, psychology, sociology, reading, literature, art, culture, creating, analyzing… these are essential aspects to understanding the larger sociocultural questions we must face as scholars, as thinkers, as people, as citizens.
I want thoughtful discourse in the context of safety and love and with the guidance of thoughtful pedagogues and meaningful scaffolding to ensure the best of all worlds, and I am discontent with extremes of abandonment to autodidacticism and autocratic oppression.