In last Tuesday’s Guardian, professor emeritus Frank Furedi launches a scathing attack on the increasing prevalence of “trigger warnings” in academic life. Furedi claims that “Too many academics are now censoring themselves“, but struggles to provide any concrete evidence of this claim.
The entire article is underpinned by an invalid and fallacious conflation of trigger warnings and censorship. In actual fact, the presence of a trigger warning means – by its very definition – that some piece of (potentially) disturbing material has not been censored or removed. If the university was avoiding such material altogether, there would obviously be nothing to warn about in the first place. An established and appropriate system of “trigger warnings” provides a framework for including such subjects in the assigned texts, without creating needless and harmful situations for those students who suffer from previous trauma.
Now, the concerns about the possible negative effects of a ‘trigger warning culture’ are not entirely spurious. Universities may potentially choose to omit or minimise certain topics to avoid the extra hassle of providing trigger warnings – and it is obviously possible to expand the scope of trigger warnings so much that they become unreasonable, bloated and useless. And on this topic – as with every other topic under the sun – you will no doubt be able to find the occasional individual who applies the principle in ludicrous ways.
A certain degree of vigilance against these potential developments is therefore perfectly appropriate. But this applies equally to any number of perfectly legitimate practices – including the related (and entirely commonplace) practice of warning against “images of graphic violence” in TV news reports. To abjure any and all forms of “trigger warnings”, purely out of fear of possible slippery-slope consequences, is a blatant case of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. (The resistance against trigger warnings becomes particularly ironic when self-styled champions of academic free speech call for an absolute ban on any such warnings, and the dismissal of any lecturers who choose to provide such warnings to their students ahead of class.)
Professor Furedi does not go quite this far in his opposition, but he fails to document any cases of truly problematic “tip-toeing” or “sensitivity”. His opening example is from the UCL, where “students studying the archaeology of modern conflict have been told they are permitted to leave class if they find the discussion of historical events disturbing or traumatising“. He neglects to mention, though, that his own source specifies that any student who leaves class is expected to catch up independently on the material being covered. And as an attendee of the same course points out in the comment section below Furedi’s article, this “warning” consists of nothing more than a brief paragraph in the course handbook (and an equally brief verbal mention during the opening lecture) informing the students that the course will be covering some rather gruesome material and that nobody will be penalised for the occasional absence from class.
It’s extremely hard to discern why Furedi considers it deeply problematic that a class which examines torture, rape and genocide in detail, accepts that certain students may need to absent themselves briefly from the discussion (perhaps because they have suffered similar trauma themselves). If the mere act of permitting a student to leave class arouses such indignation, it raises the question of how he would have handled a comparable situation in his own classes. Would he have demanded that every student, including a rape victim, sit through a detailed discussion of historical mass rapes? Making such a demand would be callous disregard for the situation of trauma victims – but it seems the only logical conclusion when he rails against the UCL’s policy of simply allowing students to leave class when necessary.
Similarly, Furedi warns in strident terms of “practices that demand [narrow-minded] conformism“, and attempts to exemplify his claims by quoting from statement on the use of sensitive material produced by the University of Newcastle. In actual fact, the brief statement of university policy addresses the issue in an extremely sober and level-headed manner, stating clearly and unequivocally that “In humanities areas (…) it is inevitable that distressing life events and situations can and will be encountered“.
Contrary to Furedi’s warnings about how the category of “sensitive subjects” will inevitably balloon out to include every possible subject, the guidelines delineate “sensitive topics” as “the depiction/discussion of rape, suicide, graphic violence and other themes of this kind“. And perhaps most importantly, they explicitly point out that trigger warnings are not a tool to avoid such topics altogether, but to allow individual students (each according to their own personal situation and needs) to “use this information to (…) prepare themselves to study challenging material in a way that is appropriate to them.” And the faculty’s role in this, beyond attaching the necessary information to each module? Merely to “provide support and guidance with this process” when contacted by students who request such assistance.
To accept that a minority of students (PTSD sufferers, for instance) may require such accommodation to be able to participate fully in various studies, and that universities also have a responsibility to accommodate these students, ought to be utterly banal and uncontroversial. Far from buttressing Furedi’s doom-laden portents of academic integrity being undermined, this succinct policy demonstrates how trigger warnings can easily be implemented in a common-sense and unobtrusive fashion, without any sacrifice of academic freedom or rigor, nor any relaxation in the demands for the students to master the entire syllabus.
It’s telling that such a staunch opponent of trigger warnings (who has just completed an entire book on the wider topic) is unable to provide anything more than these thoroughly anodyne and unremarkable examples in support of his case. This absence of evidence is of course not absolute evidence of absence, but it undoubtedly offers a strong indication that the dire warnings of “students being shielded from disturbing ideas” are largely overblown, and that the vast majority of universities are perfectly capable of handling these issues in a sensible and proportional fashion.
Furedi’s strongest example (and that’s damning by faint praise) is probably his reference to the guidelines for handling victims of sexual assault at Oberlin College. Oberlin is a US by-word for “left-wing political correctness”, and even us woolly-headed liberals may raise a few eyebrows at the insistence on “ask[ing] all students for their preferred pronouns on the first day of class“, or on providing not just trigger warnings, but also a comprehensive explanation on why the triggering material is being assigned.
But even these policies seem excessive largely because they represent a needless codifying of what ought to be easily manageable through common sense and common courtesy – except that, as the saying goes, “Common sense isn’t”.
Professor Furedi’s own article demonstrates precisely why universities have seen the need to establish such institutionalised policies. When professors react with such affront and high dudgeon to basic accommodations, such as permitting the occasional student to leave class temporarily when faced with particularly distressing material, it becomes obvious why students are not content with simply trusting each lecturer to handle individual incidents in an appropriate manner.
And if academic freedom is genuinely under the threat that Furedi would have us believe, that’s all the more reason to direct one’s criticism narrowly and accurately against specific instances of such threat, rather than launching wide-ranging attacks against policies that normally constitute nothing more than offering trauma victims a minimum of empathy and accommodation, while maintaining the integrity of the courses being taught.