Posts in: May 24th, 2015

Free Speech Means Free Speech

At the end of April, four members of Columbia University’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board wrote an op-ed in the student newspaper, the Spectator, about the damage done by the school’s lack of “trigger warnings.” In particular, a core (i.e., required) humanities class studied Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but the professor failed to mention that some of the myths boast “vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault.”

One student, a sexual assault victim, was “triggered” by this material, so she complained at an MAAB forum, apparently one of many complaints leading to this editorial. Now, carefully read the account of what happened next:

However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

What’s missing from this description is exactly what’s missing from the entire editorial’s case for “trigger warnings” and “sensitivity” in the core curriculum: a basic assumption that the professor should have some awareness of the individual, traumatic experiences of every student, and should be required to show sensitivity to that entire rainbow of experiences, at all times.

This account misses key details, up to and including the gender of the professor in question (a relevant question when the subject is insensitivity to female rape victims). For me, merely noting that the student “was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored” is a huge “yadda-yadda-yadda” over the most important part of the incident. What did the student say when she approached the professor? What sort of satisfaction did she expect for her concerns? What, if anything, did the professor say in response?

It might sound like I’m “blaming the victim” here, but that’s the problem: there is no victim. Two thousand years ago, Ovid wrote some words. A few months ago, a student was assigned to read those words and then discuss them in class. The fact that she was offended or “triggered” by the material, for any reason, does not actually make her unsafe, and it does not actually make her a victim of anything other than not wanting to read something, and not wanting to discuss it. Or maybe even just not wanting to discuss it with the professor’s focus on poetic language and imagery. If that was the case, why not raise her hand and ask, “Hey, perv, why are you so hung up on poetic yet grisly depictions of women getting raped?” And direct the discussion in the direction of the appropriateness of both Ovid’s depictions of these acts and the appropriateness of the professor’s focus.

College is about more than education. It’s about learning to grow up and live in the world. If you expect “trigger warnings” and a “safe space” in your college experience, how do you expect to venture out into a world where you don’t have MAABs or other organizations trying to cushion your experience? Trauma victims should know, better than just about anyone, that the world is not a safe space. Engaging with ideas you disagree with—including professors and fellow students who hold such ideas—is much more important than shutting them out.

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