Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Speech Codes, Trigger Warnings And Universities. Or The Coddling of the American Mind.

Even the president chipped in on the question of trigger warnings in US college courses:

It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal, and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues, who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem too. I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, "You can’t come because I'm too sensitive to hear what you have to say." That’s not the way we learn either.

Bolds are mine.

This topic has gotten wider attention, with The Coddling of the American Mind article in the Atlantic Monthly by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt,  though feminists such as Jill Filipovic, Roxane Gay and Jessica Valenti have all written about the possible negative consequences of trigger warnings and such in college courses, as this recent article by Marcie Bianco points out.

So what do I think about this all?

First I have to get over the symbolism in the term "to coddle," used in both the president's comment and in the Lukianoff and Haidt article.  Sure, coddling is when someone is perhaps overprotected.  But it's also a cooking term, about eggs:
In cooking, coddled eggs are gently or lightly cooked eggs. They can be partially cooked, mostly cooked, or hardly cooked at all..
Are those speaking or writing about coddling implying that the little ova entering academia will not get properly cooked (educated, turned into sharp logical razor-blade eggs with a much expanded view of eggs in general)  if they are protected against arguments that make them "uncomfortable?"  Wouldn't it be better to just sharply tap all those eggs-still-in-their-shells against the frying pan edge, crack them open,  heat up the batter and let the frying begin?  Sunny-side-up, anyone?

I had to go there, sigh.  And then I began to think about hatching eggs, to turn them into live chickens.  That would be a better metaphor for what universities are for.  Perhaps chickens with good self-defense skills, both intellectual and emotional?  And couldn't that include teaching the incoming students how to give and take intellectual criticism without getting too emotionally damaged?

Second, and much more importantly, it's crucial to note that the president's quote cannot be easily reversed in this part:

... or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. 
Try it.  "If it has language that is offensive to whites or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards men."  Such "reversed" books or courses exist, but they are a tiny minority, because most books and courses come from the received state of knowledge in various fields, are marked with past history and reflect the past and present power relationships of the society.

What this means is that we have to be very clear about one fact:  Not all incoming students have to develop hard shells against demeaning or offensive comments to the same extent, and it's much easier for some critics to just focus on the wonderful light of further learning and on the beauty of an open debate, because they don't have skin in the game as often as other students will.*

None of this means that I'm for the "coddling" of the American mind.  But I'm pretty sure that those who talk about some general coddling of all incoming students' minds fail to see  important underlying differences in whose minds traditionally have been coddled.

*  Or rather, their basic inner worth is not questioned in those debates.  Note that other kinds of "trigger points," not linked to gender or race or ethnicity, are probably fairly evenly spread against the general student population.  So certain students get those and the extra bit about gendered and/or racial arguments.