Content Note: This post deals with the trigger warnings, the belittling of people who ask for them, and embarrassment in the classroom.

Image Credit: Alan Levine
Image Credit: Alan Levine

I have been lucky enough to get professional advice from some truly wonderful people and many of them have told me that the key to a productive and fulfilling academic exchange of ideas is to give others the benefit of the doubt and be generous in your reading of their work. Assume that everyone wants to make the world a better place through the sharing of their ideas and if you disagree with them it is because you more or less disagree on what that better place looks like. I am going to continue working on that but today I am going to gift myself one last moment where I truly believe there are people that are out there who want to make life harder for millions of people.

If you shared that last Atlantic article about trigger warnings in college classrooms, and you have nothing to do with higher education, I think you are a hateful person.

At the very least, if I were to give you the benefit of the doubt (that you do not deserve), I might say that you are incredibly misinformed. That you do not understand what a trigger warning is, or what it is supposed to do, or in what contexts it is deployed, but then why suddenly get interested in a thing you know nothing about? When was the last time you were in a classroom? Was there ever a moment where you were in a classroom and someone seemingly inexplicably got up and ran screaming and crying never to be seen from again? If that did in fact happen and your first thought was, what a weak and childish person, then what the fuck is wrong with you? Where did your compassion go? Was it ever there?

If you shared that last Atlantic article about trigger warnings in college classrooms, and you are an educator, I think you are a bad at your job.

Perhaps you do not understand the dynamics of the administrative tactics that go on above your head and behind your back that order your daily working life. The ones that use parents and students’ complaints to strengthen their control over what is taught and who does the teaching. Maybe you have some profound disdain for your students that you keep locked away in tiny snide comments in your syllabus. The sorts of denigrating and smarmy jokes that the alpha males wearing Sponge Bob baseball caps find really, really funny and whose hung over laughter, give you a moment of vicarious youth. If that is the case, please go sell out, or get a job at some evangelical Christian college because you belong with your retrograde brethren on the wrong side of history.

Even if you do still love your students (and even when they frustrate the ever-loving-shit out of you, you must love them because that is your job and trust me you are at your best when you love them in spite of themselves) but you share that article as a means to shake your fist at some imagined other set of students that you are sure you’ll get this Fall (for sure this time you can feel it) then you are still bad at your job because you are scaring away the prospective graduate students. Stop scaring away good people that care about other people and who do not want to join a profession that drips with disdain for anyone that tries to take the slightest bit of control over their lives. We need good people teaching and researching.

If you shared that last Atlantic article about trigger warnings in college classrooms, and you are an editor of a major publication I think you are both bad at your job and a hateful person.

Not only is the ARE THE KIDS TOO SENSITIVE?!?!? the most warmed-over, left under the heating lamps too long and the French fries are soggy, hot take on the planet, it makes anyone that touches these stories look like a horse’s ass. The interviewees come off as bigots and your writers come off as fedora-wearing shitheels that say things like “I only sleep with people who read Phillip Roth.” It makes your entire publication look like The Drudge Report.

At this point you might be saying, “Wow, that was a lot of cursing and personal attacks that do not refute the Atlantic article’s underlying arguments about how young people are maintaining such impenetrable filter bubbles and echo chambers that they are not becoming well-rounded citizens. Rather than confront and consider uncomfortable ideas, they tend to run away from them.”

To which I might say, “Go fuck yourself.”

Not only are black and brown children still getting the “here’s how to not be murdered by the cops” before they learn about sex; not only are kids bold and beautiful enough to fight the sorts of complex oppressions that their parents are still hiding from in their life-long retreats to the cul-de-sacs of fly-over country; not only are they fighting harder and paying more than ever to even get into these college classrooms in the first place; the kids today are expert curators of information. They have been doing it before they got to pre-k. They know ­more than you about how to handle complex ideas and under what circumstances they should be confronted.

What in the world makes you think that a professor’s forgotten and neglected 15-year-old syllabus about sex in western literature is more worthy of total uncompromising acceptance than the meticulously arranged collection of 500 different Tumblrs about intersectional feminism that his students comb through on a daily basis? Because here’s a secret: they’re asking for and utilizing trigger warnings in those too but it isn’t like everyone is sharing a bunch of posts that they do not read. Okay that was not a secret. So what the fuck is your excuse?

I should also mention that this blog does not always issue content warnings or trigger warnings at the top of the post. We leave that up to each author and some of us use them and some of us do not. I mostly do not add them. That is because if there is something worth warning about in the body of the post I generally try to make it clear in the title or the first few paragraphs that such a topic will come up. I’ve been trying to work it in more naturally but maybe that is failing. I would appreciate some criticism in that regard.

Trigger warnings are not requests to leave the conversation; they are demands that one be given the chance to prepare for difficult topics. Topics that are difficult, usually, because so many people have experienced them first hand. That is what makes articles like this latest one in the Atlantic so truly and completely disgusting: that adults who fear a generation of coddled children are in fact the coddled few who are spewing uninformed gibberish at young adults who have already experienced so much in their lives.

If you shared that last Atlantic article about trigger warnings in college classrooms, and you are a student in those college classrooms then you still have a lot to learn. And that is okay.

You are a work in progress. We are all works in progress but you are still more work than progress. But again, that is just fine. It is the job of teachers and professors to help you along and, in tones far gentler and more productive than the one I struck above, give you the tools to become the best person you can be. Those tools are varied and take a lifetime to master but you can be damn sure that within a few years you’ll be better than these assholes that write these articles.

David is on twitter and tumblr.



[Edit] Also, read Sara Ahmed’s excellent essay Against Students:

The “problem student” is a constellation of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student, and the complaining student. By considering how these figures are related we can explore connections that are being made through them, connections between, for example, neoliberalism in higher education, a concern with safe spaces, and the struggle against sexual harassment. These connections are being made without being explicitly articulated.  We need to make these connections explicit in order to challenge them. This is what “against students” is really about. More…