'You Get Hate Mail Any Time You Say Anything Provocative, But ...'

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

Greg Lukianoff sat down with our editor-in-chief to discuss the response he got from readers on the cover story he wrote with Jonathan Haidt:

Many references to your emails are strewn throughout. For example, at about the two-minute mark, Greg gets a tad emotional recalling the email we posted from Paula, who read a poem in class about a suicide from a tall building—the same method her sister used to kill herself. At about the 3-minute mark, Greg makes a point similar to one I remember last year from Jill Filipovic, a long-time editor of the left-liberal blog Feministe:

The world can be a desperately ugly place, especially for women. That feminist blogs try to carve out a little section of the world that is a teeny bit safer for their readers is a credit to many of those spaces.

Colleges, though, are not intellectual or emotional safe zones. Nor should they be. Trauma survivors need tools to manage their triggers and cope with every day life. Universities absolutely should prioritize their needs – by making sure that mental health care is adequately funded, widely available and destigmatized. But they do students no favors by pretending that every piece of potentially upsetting, triggering or even emotionally devastating content comes with a warning sign.

Amen. But back to our reader discussion with another dissenter, Zak Bickel, who runs through some previous critiques from readers:

Here’s some of my thoughts on the argument’s progression, and particularly on the most recent responses by Haidt.

As Becky Liddle pointed out, this argument hinges almost entirely on over-the-top examples that have, in most cases, more to do with overzealous campus administrators than they do with student requests. It’s an argument of what-ifs and slippery slopes, not of data. Yet when presented dissenting perspectives, Haidt pretends otherwise and defers to the “preponderance of researchers” in proving trigger warnings' malicious nature.

This seems intellectually dishonest. Lukianoff himself stated that trigger warnings were barely noted as late as 2014, yet we are to believe that there is already objective, research driven evidence against their usage?

To wit, Haidt links twice to a 2014 article by Pacific Standard that has tangential linkage at best to the issue of trigger warnings. The article describes incidence rates of PTSD (relatively high, and having PTSD is hardly the only prerequisite to wanting trigger warnings) and extolls the virtue of exposure therapy—which to be very clear, is nothing the same as a professor bringing up a traumatic topic in a lesson. The fifth study loosely correlates to trigger warnings in stating the dangers of victimhood-based identity, but basing an identity around trauma is hardly synonymous with the desire to avoid it outside of a therapist’s office. This is very unconvincing data that Haidt and Lukianoff use to invalidate lived perspectives.

Given this lack of data, Haidt and Lukianoff’s arguments boils down to telling students burdened with trauma or anxiety that their issues aren’t worth action that the teachers personally find useless. The professors know better, it seems, and look, we have studies and PhDs! It’s a paternalistic and frankly condescending argument that ignores basic rules of empathy.

The interaction between Haidt and reader V. Reish says it all. Reish passionately argues from his own life, stating:

Triggers are very real, most are incredibly easy to warn for, and they deal with brain disorders and phobias, not ‘challenging ideas.’ I’ve been triggered since age twelve... The term anxiety doesn't do justice to the brain-simulated heart attacks a bad triggering can induce. If you can spare someone that with a throwaway sentence, why wouldn’t you?

Haidt completely ignores this personal narrative and cooly shuts the matter down:

If there was clear evidence that trigger warnings actually helped these students to grow stronger and more independent, or even just to learn, then we’d be set up for a good conversation... But since the preponderance of researchers who have weighed in on the issue say that trigger warnings are likely to do more harm than good, I don’t think there is any reason to use them.

The researchers Haidt cites here (the aforementioned Pacific Standard article) are useless towards making his case, so why does he refuse to find clear evidence from another place: Reish’s life, perhaps, and the obvious implication that many students are just like him? Why insist that he knows better about a young person’s mental state and ability to cope with trauma than the young person themself? Haidt is so unwilling to perform a basic act of warning that it borders on edge of preposterous. He comes off almost indignant.

It’s relevant here to cite Lukianoff and Haidt’s intro to “emotional reasoning”:

[David D.] Burns defines emotional reasoning as assuming “that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true.’ ” Leahy, Holland, and McGinn define it as letting “your feelings guide your interpretation of reality.” But, of course, subjective feelings are not always trustworthy guides; unrestrained, they can cause people to lash out at others who have done nothing wrong. Therapy often involves talking yourself down from the idea that each of your emotional responses represents something true or important.

Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.

Bickel also added “one final note”:

An alarming fact from the research Haidt twice cites is that 6 percent of women in America suffer from PTSD related to sexual assault. This is an incredible amount, and statistically counts for at least one student in every class Haidt and Lukianoff teach. Despite your few extreme examples, these thousands upon thousands of students came your college to learn, not to destroy your curriculum. It won’t crumble the educational edifice to warn them before discussing a topic that will cause extremely unpleasant associations. They just want to know when to schedule their therapy session.

Another reader, Erica Etelson, looks for a middle ground:

Apparently, some students want trigger warnings while others don’t. Perhaps professors can negotiate this by asking students who want trigger warnings to inform them at the beginning of the semester of what types of warnings they want and then provide one-on-one warnings to these students rather than to the entire class. It’s a bit of a burden on professors, but not as much of an intellectual burden as blanket trigger warnings.

Another reader recalls an instance where a middle ground was found:

During my sophomore year English class at a liberal arts college, the novel we were covering had a couple passages that were quite sexually explicit, so when the professor mentioned one day at the beginning of the class that we would be reading through part of the text, each student a paragraph, and then having a discussion, we were given an option to just say “pass.”

Of course, the paragraph that contained the main character pleasuring herself in a very extended and explicit way fell to me.  I had no problem with us studying the book, no contention with discussing it, but there was just something weird about sitting around and reading aloud such a passage among a group of semi-strangers.  My heart rate skyrocketed and I started sweating like crazy.  I didn’t want to be the prude, I didn’t want to be the weird dude throwing off the mojo of the class, and I didn't want to make the class more awkward than it already had become.

So just I said, “I’m not comfortable reading this,” and the professor happily did the duty for me, and then continued on with the student sitting next me.  Was that my own personal issues coming out and affecting the class?  Yep.  Would I probably just go ahead and read it now?  Probably.  But after the class the professor pulled me aside in private and said he respected my courage to say I was uncomfortable with the exercise and did not actively participate.  I felt respected, the subject was still covered without a big complaint to the dean, and six years later I’m probably a lot more comfortable with that type of material because it was handled so professionally.

Should students chill out about comedians like Chris Rock?  Absolutely.  Could professors find some middle-ground with their students by acknowledging that some material is going to be emotionally harder for some than others and still cover it?  I think on the vast majority of cases, they can.