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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.

Exposure to ideas that make you uncomfortable, that offend you, that “trigger” you, have two extremely important effects: they toughen you up for a world filled with offensive, “triggering” behavior; and, perhaps more importantly, they open your eyes to the fact that, no matter how much you insulate yourself with good people and good neighborhoods and good jobs, offensive ideas are still out there. And one of the fun things about free speech is that such ideas don’t have warnings attached to them, because the people espousing them don’t consider them offensive.

My main issue with the editorial isn’t with the “proposition” about sending “a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings”—I, personally, think it’s pretty stupid, but fair warning for overly sensitive students isn’t the worst thing in the world. My problem is with the idea that “students need to feel safe in the classroom” (not even remotely true), and the MAAB’s other two propositions:

Next, we noted that there should be a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors. Finally, the center should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.

I say this as somebody who had many, many, many disagreements with both classroom material and the way professors “framed” them: Go fuck yourselves with these “requirements.” (Sorry if that violent sexual imagery “triggering” to anyone.)

I went to an art school. My core curriculum was taught by professors who took the classics and focused on their most depraved, outdated notions; professors who rejected any popularly successful art in favor for “truer”/”braver” art (by which they meant art that didn’t make any money); professors who challenged my deeply held beliefs about my own art and, through exposure to a lot of shit I hated (both in content and how it was taught to me), made me better. In some ways, this exposure reinforced those deeply held beliefs; in other ways, the challenge they and their preferred art posed opened me up to new means of expressing ideas. They gave me a bunch of new tools for self-expression, which I would not have had if I had stuck with things I knew (or strongly suspected) I would like, and consciously avoided things that would probably offend me.

These experiences predate college, though. Back when I was in high school, I had English teachers who gleefully hung posters listing notorious “Banned Book” titles, many of which they taught. The summer between eighth grade and freshman year of high school, I was required to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I was a 13-year-old white suburbanite, surrounded for most of my life by other white suburbanites, struggling through books about racism and rape, the modern immigrant experience, Depression-era powerlessness…

We didn’t really have helicopter parents back then. In fact, I remember the first time I ever heard about this phenomenon. It was my junior year, in AP US History. Our teacher had just moved to a newly built subdivision in Bartlett; she was driving home one evening, and when she got to her street, she found herself behind a minivan driving about 10mph. She was just a tad high-strung to begin with, so the slowness drove her mad. When she finally got to her driveway, she realized the reason for the slowness: two boys, maybe eight years old, were riding bikes, and their mothers were trailing them in the van.

She brought it up in class because she wanted to know if any of us had experienced something like this with our parents, or if we were aware of any parents who behaved like this. Every student in the class was flummoxed. Sure, some of us had overbearing parents, but they were taking it to a crazy new extreme.

What would have happened, though, if our schools were infested with helicopter parents? We had some nutso conservative parents who wanted books banned because they had sexy parts. I don’t think we had any who would have said, “You need to ban I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, because my daughter was molested and can’t be ‘triggered,'” or “because we’re a black family and don’t want our son ‘triggered’ by the racism,” or “You need to ban Of Mice and Men because my son has a retarded brother, and we don’t want him ‘triggered’ by Lennie getting put out of his misery. That Looney Tunes cartoon is ‘triggering’ enough!”

Is that what’s happening in schools now? I’m honestly asking, because I’ve been out of school for awhile. The last thing I recall hearing about required reading was about ten years ago, when they decided to replaced To Kill a Mockingbird with A fucking Time to Kill, on the grounds that it’s basically the same story but easier for kids to read. Which is complete insanity, but at least the decision wasn’t made because Boo Radley was “triggering” students who were ascared of pale weirdos.

(I just made the mistake of looking up my district’s current summer reading slate, and The Hunger Games is on the fucking freshman list, so clearly things haven’t gotten better.)

The point, though, is that exposure to material like this benefits students in many more ways than “triggers” harm them. What if I, for example, had been raised in some kind of gross, sexist, pro-rape household? What if I had a mom who said of every rape victim she heard about, “Well, they’re asking for it—the way they’re dressed”? What if I had a dad who, as we carved Pinewood Derby cars, related to me proud stories of his sexual violence against women, instilling the value that this is what women want and deserve?

And then I went to high school and read The fucking Hunger Games instead of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? I’ll be honest: I hated that book at the time (too boring, too “poetic”), but it stuck with me. It informed my experience of the world, which is the purpose of great art: to put a person in shoes they wouldn’t otherwise be in, which almost always means making them feel uncomfortable and unsafe. I don’t have the experience of being a girl/woman, being black, being raped, being tormented for having a particular pigmentation… A dry, academic textbook relating facts about these struggles does not have the same impact as an artistic work that puts me right into the experience. So, would it be better for me to never even try to understand that experience, because the darkness and violence “triggers” me? Should I be able to get a note to get out of classroom discussions for fearing of “triggering”?

When I was in college, two discussion-based classes that were arguably the least artsy I took had a dramatic impact on my preconceived notions.

First was a class on politics and government, taught by a German professor who leaned far to the left and spoke frequently of Nazi guilt. At the time, what I knew about politics could fill a thimble (I distinctly remember taking one of those “political spectrum” online quizzes and later telling one of my friends it had told me I was a “Unitarian,” because I couldn’t remember what it had actually said, and that sounded political to me), but the class was half-full of people with very serious, very developed political views.

The professor, by design, became a debate moderator. At an art school, you don’t expect a ton of diversity in politics. My political views were mostly “learned,” so I just took it for granted that everybody was against the (then new) war in Iraq, everyone thought Bush was an idiot, everyone knew Democrats wanted better things for the country. It was a challenge to have my views confronted by a peer who loved Reagan like fucking Alex P. Keaton, who constantly argued that politics was nothing but “15-year plans,” so the economy thrived under Clinton because of all of Reagan’s plans, and it had started slumping because of Bush Sr. and Clinton, and it would come back strong in a decade, after Bush Jr. left office. (Boy, he really called that one.) But it was even more of a challenge to have my views confronted by a journalism student who would say things like, “Bill Clinton is so charming—I’d love to fuck him.” It never even occurred to me that people who were into politics were that into politics.

Another, related class (it was literally right next door and held an hour later) was on western humanities. Although it focused on western art and literature, the discussions it led to were very heavy on history, politics, and religion. There was one guy, an older student (like, late-20s/early-30s older) who we thought had a crush on the professor (who, in his defense, was age-appropriate and really hot), who would constantly try to dominate the class discussions with erudite, diverse opinions and questions. Most of us, for example, had very little familiarity with Ibsen (and wanted even less familiarity after having to read An Enemy of the People—what a snooze); this guy would try to engage the professor on the ways the themes of persecution and kneejerk disdain reflected Ibsen’s own view of how people reacted to his previous plays.

One day, against the wishes of the professor, a guest lecturer was “invited” to discuss the war in Iraq. He had us read a Langston Hughes poem, called “Letter from Spain”:

We captured a wounded Moor today.

He was just as dark as me.

I said, Boy, what you been doin’ here

Fightin’ against the free?

He answered something in a language

I couldn’t understand

But somebody told me he was sayin’

They nabbed him in his land

And made him join the fascist army

And come across to Spain

And he said he had a feelin’

He’d never get back home again.

He said he had a feelin’

This whole thing wasn’t right.

He said he didn’t know

The folks he had to fight.

And as he lay there dying

In a village we had taken,

I looked across to Africa

And seed foundations shakin’.

Cause if a free Spain wins this war,

The colonies, too, are free—

Then something wonderful’ll happen

To them Moors as dark as me.

I said, I guess that’s why old England

And I reckon Italy, too,

Is afraid to let a workers’ Spain

Be too good to me and you—

Cause they got slaves in Africa—

And they don’t want ’em to be free.

Listen, Moorish prisoner, hell!

Here, shake hands with me!

I knelt down there beside him,
And I took his hand—
But the wounded Moor was dyin’
And he didn’t understand.

The discussion that followed focused on two major themes present in the poem: first, the imagery of “Moors as dark as me” as Hughes’s way of saying we’re all the same and shouldn’t be fighting; second, the idea of people being forced to fight an enemy they don’t know or understand. Naturally, the discussion used these themes to make analogies to what was going on in the Middle East: we’re all the same, yet we’re going and fighting these perfectly nice people for no reason, because our fearless leaders don’t understand that we’re all the same.

When the floor opened up, this older student unloaded on the guest lecturer. I realized, for the first time, that he wasn’t just trying to impress the professor (who left her own classroom in a huff after introducing the guest); he was a nerdy activist who, like, read the newspaper and shit. He was pressing the lecturer on why he would suggest the regime of Saddam Hussein is no different than America, and why we don’t have the right to topple oppressive, totalitarian dictators—how wouldn’t that help the people? The lecturer was, surprisingly, out of his depth…as were all the other students, who remained silent as this guy threw around phrases like “Ba’ath Party” (first time I’d ever heard of that) and “genocide.”

What struck me about the older student wasn’t just his aggressive, discomfort-inducing challenge of our esteemed guest; it was the complexity of his views. He wasn’t like the Reagan-loving neo-con in my politics class. He was arguing that a regime change in Iraq was righteous because of the type of “leader” Saddam was; he wanted people everywhere to be free and democratic. Even though I disagreed with our right to go and topple regimes just because they’re bad, we had common ground: we agreed that it was terrible that the people in Iraq were oppressed; it was terrible that what Aki Muthali calls “pseudo-liberals” were trying to claim, at that time, that Iraqis were perfectly happy and healthy under Saddam; and that what they needed—what all people need—is true freedom and democracy.

These personal experiences of mine share a common theme: offensive, challenging speech changed the way I saw people and the world. Perhaps such speech wasn’t personally offensive to me, but certainly the guest lecturer was offended by this older student. I was offended, on some level, by the Reagan lover in my politics class distorting history to make his ideology sound better. I was especially offended by the mental picture of the journalism student fucking Bill Clinton.

A college environment in which possible offenses are curtailed, as much as possible, before they can happen, and quickly shut down if they do happen is no way to learn. Ironically, the Columbia Spectator links to another op-ed—from almost a year to the day prior—decrying the insane hypocrisy of “trigger” warnings in an academic setting.

College is about so much more than learning from books. It’s about learning from people, and using the diverse experiences championed by the MAAB in order to broaden knowledge of life. Would it have beneficial for the boys in the class to have heard about how disturbing and “triggering” Ovid’s depictions of rape are to girls who have endured rape? Yes. This is how change happens: in a space that isn’t safe from “triggers” but is safe from the fear of expressing the diversity of your own experience. Anonymous complaining to the professor doesn’t help anyone, including the “triggered” student.

Those who are “triggered” so easily, by such common aspects of life—consuming art/entertainment or discussing topics with relative strangers—flat-out need therapy. One reason I rarely apply the term “survivor” to a victim of a violent crime is because they are not survivors unless they’ve had as much therapy as they need—it varies from person to person—to truly process what happened to them, integrate it into their brains, and move forward. There is absolutely nothing “shameful” or “weak” about turning to outside help to resolve mental/emotional trauma. People do it everyday, often for much less significantly traumatic pain.

Sensitivity training for professors compounds the problem. It serves no other purpose than slamming down hot-button discussions before any hot buttons can get pressed. Where does that leave us? With rape victims who are never forced to truly confront what happened—an extremely unhealthy outcome (and going to a few weeks of group crisis counseling doesn’t count as “confronting” it; you’ll know you confronted it when you can read Ovid and not feel like the world is crumbling beneath your feet)—and potential rapists who never have to contemplate the horrific consequences of their actions.

On what planet is this a good outcome for students? At some point, we all need to learn to take off the training wheels and become productive members of a society that, thanks to the First Amendment, is often merciless and hateful. The solution is not the suppression of free speech that makes some people uncomfortable. The solution is to give as good as you get. They’re using the First Amendment against you; you have the right to use it right the fuck back.

That’s what makes America great.

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