'Empathetically Correct' Is the New Politically Correct

The movement for "trigger warnings" in college classrooms is part of a troubling trend toward protecting people from their own individual sensitivities.

When I was attending graduate school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, political correctness reigned supreme. Lassoing the powers of language, literature, and the law, the movement dubbed “PC” initially worked toward the good goal of greater inclusiveness for marginalized communities. Eventually, however, bloated by the riches of the ivory tower of academia and provoked by the excesses and exclusivity of the good-ol’-boy culture of Wall Street, political correctness morphed into a tyranny of speech codes, sensitivity training, and book banning. Its reach lingers still, most recently exemplified in the decision by a state panel in Nevada not to name a cove after Mark Twain because of the author’s racist 19th-century views toward Native Americans.

But it seems political correctness is being replaced by a new trend—one that might be called “empathetic correctness.”

While political correctness seeks to cultivate sensitivity outwardly on behalf of those historically marginalized and oppressed groups, empathetic correctness focuses inwardly toward the protection of individual sensitivities. Now, instead of challenging the status quo by demanding texts that question the comfort of the Western canon, students are demanding the status quo by refusing to read texts that challenge their own personal comfort.

In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, his iconoclastic jeremiad on entertainment culture, Neil Postman invokes George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In noting the contrast between their two dystopian visions of the future, Postman notes,

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Orwell envisioned an external form of control that becomes internalized—essentially, political correctness. Huxley envisioned an internal form of control that becomes externalized—empathetic correctness. And Postman thinks Huxley’s was the more accurate prediction.

The most jaw-dropping display of empathetic correctness came in a recent New York Times article reporting on the number of campuses proposing that so-called “trigger warnings” be placed on syllabi in courses using texts or films containing material that might “trigger” discomfort for students. Themes seen as needing such warnings range from suicide, abuse, and rape to anti-Semitism, “misogynistic violence,” and “controlling relationships.” Astonishingly, some of the literary works advocates claim need warning labels for adult college students are often read by high school students, such as The Great Gatsby and The Merchant of Venice.

The purpose of these trigger warnings, according to one Rutgers student calling for them, is to permit students to either plan ahead for “tackling triggering massages” [sic] or to arrange “an alternate reading schedule with their professor.” The student, a sophomore and, surprisingly, an English major (once upon a time, English majors clamored for provocative books) advocates professors warning students as to which passages contain “triggering material” and which are “safer” so that students can read only portions of the book with which “they are fully comfortable.” He explains,

For many students, trigger traumas are daily, painful experiences … However, by creating trigger warnings for their students, professors can help to create a safe space for their students — one that fosters positive and compassionate intellectual discussion within the collegiate classroom.

He contends that “many of our students enter—and exit—our University with serious traumas, which can cause emotional or psychological distress within our own classrooms.” Thus, a similar proposal under consideration at the University of California, Santa Barbara, would allow students who might be traumatized by challenging material to miss classes containing such material without a grade penalty.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic. As an English professor, I had a student—a rape survivor—express feeling traumatized by classroom discussion of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I learned about her difficulty only following her repeated absences from class. A trigger warning might have prevented—or perhaps merely ensured—these absences. But a person traumatized by reading a Victorian novel is a person in need of help, and the entire episode brought about the small crisis which resulted in a more important outcome: getting her connected with a college counselor.

As Conor Friedersdorf points out in his article “What HBO Can Teach Colleges About ‘Trigger Warnings,’” it’s perfectly reasonable to recognize a likely trigger for a situation like this one that involves victims of clearly defined, identifiable and treatable traumas such as rape. But it’s another thing altogether to apply warning labels to any and all material that might challenge any possible sensitivity cultivated within an entire generation of overprotected kids.

Yet empathetic correctness is not limited to Millennials with hovering parents and veterans suffering from PTSD. In response to the recent Supreme Court decision upholding sectarian prayers in town meetings, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne declared that the ruling fails the “empathy test”:

To understand why religious freedom matters, put yourself in the position of someone who is part of a minority faith tradition in a town or nation that overwhelmingly adheres to a different creed. Then judge public practices by how they would affect the hypothetical you.

This act of empathy helps explain why religious liberty in the United States is such a gift.

However, many would argue that religious liberty (along with all the other liberties) in the United States isn’t a gift but a right. The kind of thinking that sees liberty as a gift, and therefore optional, is not far from the kind of thinking that views challenging reading material in college as optional as well. How can empathy even be cultivated apart from a willingness to have our preconceptions and our very comfort challenged? The sort of citizenry that demands warning labels on the best gifts of civilization is a citizenry ill-equipped to maintain such rights.

Of course, empathy is a virtue. Ironically, it is a virtue cultivated, recent studies have shown, by reading great literature—the very works some want accompanied by warning labels.

But studies have also shown that, good as it is, empathy is not enough to advance the social good.

In a column titled “The Limits of Empathy,” David Brooks writes about a 2011 study on empathy. “The problem,” Brooks reports, “comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.” Citing as examples prison guards in Nazi concentration camps who wept while murdering their prisoners and experimental subjects who registered emotional distress when ordered to administer electric shocks to fellow subjects, Brooks explains, “Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost.” More than empathy, Brooks argues, what advances social good is encouraging and empowering people to “debate, understand, reform, revere, and enact” a moral code and a sense of duty. Not coincidentally, such has been the traditional purpose of higher education.

Empathy even has a dark side, argues Paul Bloom in his “case against empathy.” Countering a spate of pro-empathy books and studies in recent years, Bloom argues that empathy “is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.”

Flannery O’Connor—a writer whose works are rife with warning label-worthy violence—famously said that sentimentality always leads to the gas chamber. Without any external anchor in law, mores, or trusted guides—or any openness to being challenged in one’s thinking—empathy turned inward will lead each of us to our individual prisons of the self.