Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Put your ideas behind your back or they'll shoot!

Yesterday I had an interesting (and shockingly civil) Twitter-bate with someone on the subject of so-called trigger warnings. He argued, for example, that if you're a professor who plans to discuss sexual assaultand/or especially if you plan to unveil materials describing/depicting sameit is simply proper to warn the class in the event that one or more of your students may be struggling with PTSD in the aftermath of a rape.

OK...look...sigh...I suppose you'd have to be a total a-hole to go to the mat on that one, as framed by my Twitter-ponent, even though another part of me wonders whether we want to put students in the awkward position of having to identify themselves by their getting up and leaving the room. Wouldn't that just be another infringement/invasion? But the real trouble is, we act today as if everyone in college suffers from PTSD. Or that we risk inducing PTSD in everyone merely through intense classroom discussion of sensitive topics.

Yanno, folks, by the time I got to college in the late 1960s the Mafia was already in decline, John Gotti notwithstanding. But if I'd reached college during the Mob's 1950s heyday, it would've struck me as perfectly reasonable for a prof to moderate a classroom discussion along the lines of What the hell is wrong with all these Italian men? Could there be something present, or absent, that isn't present or absent as much in other men? If so, is it nature or nurture? Is this Salerno character, in all likelihood, slightly more dangerous than the average guy? In fact, I can still see the merit of such a discussion today with regard to matters like temper and infidelity, as these are bugaboos that have defined Italian men I've known to a far greater degree than they afflict, say, my Jewish contemporaries. So then why is it inappropriate, even traumatizing, to have an intellectual discussion along the lines of Could there be something inherently wrong with a large number of black people? To wit, is it really profiling and/or prejudice that causes the mass incarceration and underachievement? Or is it, again, some predisposition of genetic or acculturated origin?

Why can't you have that discussion, even if you've got black students in the class? It would not be racism to do so, no matter how uncomfortable it made people. It would simply be a case of looking at empirical data and confronting the appropriate Occam's Razor questions. (We seem to have no problem looking at accident data and deducing that teenaged male drivers are dangerous.) In fact, such a discussion would ipso facto be an excellent gateway to the "open dialog on race" for which we're always calling but for which we don't really have the stomach, when it comes right down to it. Think of all the solid evidence that could be introduced on one side or the other from such realms as anthropology, biology, criminology, sociology, and so on ad infinitum. What's more, a trigger warning in that scenario would strike me as patronizing to any black students in attendance. One, it would assume they (a) "think black," and (b) are incapable of fighting their own battles, if that's what they choose to do.

Or suppose I would like my class to tackle the issue, "Is Bruce Jenner transsexual or is s/he just insane?" What about most other trans people? Do I need to worry that I may offend students of uncertain gender identity? Should I need to worry that I will be reported to administrators as a bigot? When and where did we adopt the mantra that debate has only one authorized side (which, in college settings, is uniformly the liberal side)? 

Because, you see, that is the real impetus behind today's trigger warnings and microaggression-mania: to give formal standing to one and only one point of view. To marginalize anyone who dissents from the prevailing agenda/ethos. I just don't buy it.

No comments: