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.