I recently read Sarah’s excellent post about why she has come to be more sympathetic to the ideology of Jonathan Haidt, which she calls Haidtism. Interestingly, her post crystallized my understanding of exactly why I disagree with Haidtism.
I broadly agree with the point that, all things considered, it is better to be able to endure things than not to be able to endure them, and generally better not to be an oversensitive weenie. (Although Ben Hoffman’s point in the comments is well-taken that proper Greek virtue is not stoic or Stoic; the ideal Greek hero might be courageous and strong, but he is also moved by beauty and emotional to a degree that Haidt might find quite repulsive.) However, the precise problem with Haidtism is that it doesn’t work to make students strong.
Sarah gives the example of exercise as something that strengthens people, despite being painful in the moment. This is true! But not everything that’s painful strengthens. Sometimes your leg is broken. Walking on your broken leg will not make you any stronger; it will just make your leg more broken. And saying “I’m taking away this crutch so you can get stronger!” will not actually help. Sometimes you just have to sit on the couch and rest until your leg heals.
Haidtism, as a philosophy, seems to me to fundamentally not realize that some people have broken legs.
Consider a veteran who wants to become a physicist, but who has flashbacks when she hears loud noises. (I would like to thank veterans for having such a common and such an apolitical trigger; it is truly an aid to thought.) I think it is perfectly reasonable for her to email her professors and say “excuse me, if there’s going to be a demonstration in which a loud noise is made, can you film it so I can watch it at home with the sound off?” Meanwhile, she works with her therapist to learn to cope with loud noises.
To me, this seems obviously superior to the alternatives. She could perhaps delay college until she no longer gets flashbacks, but that means that instead of developing two strengths– her ability to cope and her knowledge of physics– she only develops one. She could perhaps go to the demonstrations and have a flashback, but then she’s not learning whatever physics the demonstration was meant to teach, as people who are currently having flashbacks do not generally do a great job at learning physics. Therefore, if your value is people being strong, there are instances where you should accommodate people and– yes– even use trigger warnings.
Haidt’s confusion about this point is shown through him deciding to target his “virtue involves being able to do things that make you afraid and miserable!” message at mentally ill students.
Like, as a group, mentally ill people don’t actually have to be told that we need to do things that make us afraid and miserable. Doing things that make you afraid and miserable is the one virtue mental illness successfully inculcates. Personally, I am made afraid and miserable by leaving the house, going grocery shopping, the fact that my husband has to go to work, and going to therapy, and the thing about being made afraid and miserable by routine activities everyone has to do as part of their everyday life is that you get good at forcing yourself to do things that make you afraid and miserable. In fact, I feel I’ve somewhat reached the point of diminishing returns on the virtue of Make Yourself Do Things That Make You Afraid and Miserable, and would like some accommodations so that I only have to practice it, say, two or three hours a day.
Hell, you could probably make the argument that that’s true of all marginalized groups of people. You can make the case that I, Ozy, should be more tolerant of people who misgender me, and that it is important to my development of strength and resilience that I work on this. On the other hand, it appears to me that very very few cis people get daily practice in strength and resilience through putting up with being misgendered. This seems to be a very unfair gap in their education! I am now imagining a special class for members of privileged groups in which people with rich parents go hungry, native English speakers are asked to constantly repeat what they’re saying because no one can understand their accent, and abled people have to try to enter inaccessible buildings while people constantly tell them how brave they are.
Much like Treebeard, in the college trigger warnings/safe spaces wars, I am on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side. My primary interest is in neurodivergent students having access to an education, which neither side seems particularly interested in.
There are lots of things one could campaign for if one wanted to improve the positions of neurodivergent people in colleges. For instance, one could campaign for teachers to follow universal design for learning best practices, or for improved transition planning for high school students in special education so that every student who should be in college is there, or for better college-provided mental health care, or for better training about neurodivergence for staff, or for not kicking students out of school for suicidality, or for peer-run support groups for neurodivergent people, or for disability services to be less goddamn incompetent. (True story: I once had disability services try to deny me an accommodation the professor had suggested because it would interfere with the educational purpose of the school.) It does not seem accidental to me that the one issue people seem to have picked up on isn’t actually that good at improving the positions of mentally ill people in the classroom, but is good for neurotypicals who would like to show off how upset they are about racism and– in some cases– to not have to put up with emotionally harrowing books.
Part of the problem with the concept of trigger warnings is that they mix up “how do we help people with mental illnesses that lead them to experience extraordinarily strong negative effects from things most people don’t?” with “how do we teach emotionally harrowing material in the classroom?” These are two different issues. If you were trying to warn for things that commonly cause people to have extraordinarily strong negative effects due to mental illness, you’d warn for common phobia triggers (snakes, spiders, heights, enclosed spaces, public speaking), common eating disorder triggers (moralizing eating, diet talk, calorie and weight numbers), and common anxiety triggers (health stuff). Depictions of racism would not show up on the list, because depictions of racism are not actually a common trigger for any mental health issue.
Racism is, however, a very emotionally harrowing issue. Students– particularly black students– may feel a lot of pain when they see pictures of a lynching, which vividly shows how a century ago they would have been hated to the point of their murders being socially acceptable and approved of. Clearly, some emotionally harrowing material does belong in the college classroom; equally clearly, it’s bad pedagogy to suddenly spring emotionally harrowing material on your students as if you were a monster in a haunted house doing a jump scare. As part of good teaching, a professor will contextualize what they show their class, allowing the students to emotionally prepare themselves, which is essentially what the “trigger warning” students are advocating for.
I guess the argument is about whether or not they should be put on the syllabus? Even so, in my experience as a student, it wasn’t exactly difficult to figure out that Jewish History 1000 AD-1945 would talk about anti-Semitism a lot or that the class in which we were assigned the Bell Jar would talk about suicidality.
Conversely, actual triggers are very diverse, are often hard to figure out from the syllabus, and often can be easily removed from the curriculum with no harm to the educational purpose of the course (“a student who is triggered by teddy bears is taking my differential calculus class? yes, of course I’ll remove the teddy bear image I used to decorate one of the PowerPoints”). There are a variety of reasonable ways to accommodate actual triggers– which is something schools can and should do– but standardized disclaimers on syllabi seem to be a uniquely terrible way of doing so.