A Rape Survivor Against Trigger Warnings

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The latest Atlantic cover story, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” has gotten a ton of email response from readers. A young instructor at an Ivy League university prefers to remain anonymous because she “enjoys a teaching fellowship that I would very much like to keep”:

I take the health and well-being of my students very seriously. If I believed that trigger warnings and sanitized curricula and what the authors term “protective vindictiveness” genuinely helped my students, I’d be a wholehearted supporter.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that these measures do make my students safer. They just make schools like mine much lazier.

Vindictive protectiveness focuses ire on individual transgressions instead of systemic problems. It creates an atmosphere in which the administrative elite are more concerned with empty gestures than real change. They would rather use empty gestures—like, say, ousting a professor for making a joke about an assignment “killing” his students—to distract from an absence of real change, like preventing suicides on campus.

And let’s be real: the motivating concern behind top-down enforcement of mental hygiene on campuses is not that a delicate mind might be harmed in the making of their diploma. It’s lawsuits. Lawsuits and bad press. And that makes for really, really bad policy.

I appreciate the distinction drawn in this article between PCness and protective vindictiveness (VP):

[The PC movement] sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being.

This, I think, is the crux of the issue. The original zeitgeist of PC was ultimately productive, not reductive, shifting us towards a broader, richer academia, one that included voices not traditionally heard. VP, on the other hand, silences and excludes.

It’s easier not to read Beloved and Invisible Man—with all their “problematic” themes—than it is to have an honest conversation about the malignant, inescapable legacy of racism in America. It’s easier to drop Ovid’s Metamorphosis from the syllabus than it is to confront the violence and sexual darkness and blood-on-the-tongue humor in every story that humanity has ever told about itself.

In the current culture of VP, it seems, women and people of color are still disproportionately penalized for speaking out and speaking up—which feels like a step back, not forward. It’s not just that VP prevents students from having to think about what upsets them; it’s that it prevents the most privileged students from having to think about what should upset them.

As a woman, the idea of a trigger warning for misogyny seems ludicrous. Misogyny is something I experience every day, on levels both personal and institutional. Academia has never been an exception. It’s impossible not to track that crap into the classroom; we’re mired in it. I don’t leave my womanhood at the door. And a trigger warning for misogyny is exactly that: the implication that femaleness can be compartmentalized.

I wish this was a disclosure I didn’t have to make: I’m a rape survivor. And I would rather read Toni Morrison and have her words wrack my soul than see books like hers, containing stories just a little like mine, vanish from college classrooms. These are books we must read. These are conversations we must have. Not in spite of traumatized students, but because of us.

Have something to add to the debate over the new campus P.C.? Email hello@theatlantic.com. The authors of the cover story, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, will be responding to critical emails from readers in the coming days.