A new entry in the annals of academic cravenness

September 2014

For those who have not yet caught up with it, in the academic world the phrase "trigger warning" means alerting students to books that might "trigger" deleterious emotional effects. Should a Jewish student be asked to read "Oliver Twist" with its anti-Semitic caricature of Fagin, let alone "The Merchant of Venice," whose central figure is the Jewish usurer Shylock? Should African-American students be required to read "Huckleberry Finn," with its generous use of the "n-word," or "Heart of Darkness," which equates the Congo with the end of rational civilization?

Should students who are ardent pacifists be made to read about warfare in Tolstoy and Stendhal, or for that matter the Iliad? As for gay and lesbian students, or students who have suffered sexual abuse, or those who have a physical handicap . . . one could go on.

Pointing out the potentially damaging effects of books began, like so much these days, on the Internet, where intellectual Samaritans began listing such emotionally troublesome books on their blogs. Before long it was picked up by the academy. At the University of California at Santa Barbara, the student government suggested that all course syllabi contain trigger warnings. At Oberlin College, the Office of Equity Concerns advised professors to steer clear of works that might be interpreted as sexist or racist or as vaunting violence.

Movies have of course long been rated and required to note such items as Adult Language, Violence, Nudity—ratings that are themselves a form of trigger warning. Why not books, even great classic books? The short answer is that doing so insults the intelligence of those supposedly serious enough to attend college by suggesting they must not be asked to read anything that fails to comport with their own beliefs or takes full account of their troubled past experiences.

Trigger warnings logically follow from the recent history of American academic life. This is a history in which demographic diversity has triumphed over intellectual standards and the display of virtue over the search for truth. So much of this history begins in good intentions and ends in the tyranny of conformity.

Sometime in the 1950s, American universities determined to acquire students from less populous parts of the country to give their institutions the feeling of geographical diversity. In the 1960s, after the great moral victories of the civil-rights movement, the next obvious step was racial preferences, which allowed special concessions to admit African-American students. In conjunction with this, black professors were felt to be needed to teach these students and, some said, serve as role models. Before long the minority of women among the professoriate was noted. This, too, would soon be amended. "Harvard," I remember hearing around this time, "is looking for a good feminist."

All this, most reasonable people would concur, was fair enough. Then things took a radical twist. Suddenly women, African-Americans, and (later) gay and lesbian professors began teaching, in effect, themselves. No serious university could do business without an African-American Studies Department. Many female professors created and found an academic home in something called Gender Studies, which turned out to be chiefly about the suppression of women, just as African-American Studies was chiefly about the historical and contemporary maltreatment of blacks.

Something called Queer Studies came next, with gays and lesbians instructing interested students in the oppression of homosexuals.

Over time, the themes of gender, class and race were insinuated into the softer social sciences and much of the humanities. They have established a reign of quiet academic terror, and that has made the university a very touchy place indeed.

Meanwhile many of those students who in the late 1960s arose in protest have themselves come to prominence and even to eminence as professors in their 60s and early 70s. Having fought in their youth against what they thought the professorial old-boy network, they now find themselves old boys. Unable to discover a way to replace the presumably unjust society that they once sought to topple, they currently tend to stand aside when students and younger professors cavort in bumptious protest, lest they themselves be thought, God forfend, part of the problem.

University presidents and their increasingly large army of administrators have by now a 50-year tradition of cowardice. They do not clamp down when students reject the visits on their campuses of such courageous or accomplished women as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christine Lagarde or Condoleezza Rice because their views are not perfectly congruent with the students' own jejune beliefs. When students and younger faculty line up behind the morally obtuse anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement, wiser heads do not prevail, for the good reason that there are no wiser heads. The inmates, fair to say, are running the joint.

The trigger warning is another passage in the unfinished symphony of political correctness. If the universities do not come out against attacks on freedom of speech, why should they oppose the censorship implicit in trigger warnings? The main point of these warnings, as with all political correctness, is to protect the minority of the weak, the vulnerable, the disheartened or the formerly discriminated against, no matter what the price in civility, scholarly integrity and political sanity. Do they truly require such protection, even at the price of genuine education?

Nearly 200 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book on American democracy, feared the mob of the majority. In the American university today that mob looks positively pusillanimous next to the mob of the minority.