It’s hard not to see a relationship between two articles that ran over the last week in the Atlantic. The first is extremely depressing and discusses the rise of “trigger warnings” and “microaggression alerts” on college campuses. On the surface this doesn’t seem like it would relate to subjects of interest to us, but bear with me.
In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt depict a world where colleges and universities encourage young minds to think in pathological ways based on emotion and police these emotional reactions with an iron fist. Although the authors use a frankly bizarre cognitive-behavioral psychology model to frame their investigation, the overall theme is quite clear: In an effort to prevent any type of harassment and to avoid federal investigations, colleges have gradually become police states, reinforcing an ideology that individuals’ emotions are so fragile that a single word could send them into a spiral of despair. Such a state emerged from the best of intentions, derived from the notion that students should be protected from overt harassment and that students who have experienced trauma may need to be informed when discussions of that trauma occur, lest it make them uncomfortable. Consequently, students are increasingly demanding “trigger warnings” be placed on course content, including classic literature, to warn others that such works contain racism, sexism, classism, or depictions of sexuality and violence that might cause a traumatic flashback.
But this has morphed into a system of institutionalized paternalism, due in part to the U.S. Dept. of Education changing the definition of harassment in 2013 from “overt” offensiveness to merely “unwelcome” speech. As a result, students have learned that their emotions can be used as weapons to punish others and to avoid being challenged. Hence, the authors say, the rise of “microaggression” reporting, in which students rely on the power judicial procedures to police one another’s word choices, lest the connotation of a misplaced verb “trigger” trauma. In extreme cases, this has resulted in punitive speech codes, and because the sole criterion for offensiveness is how the alleged victim feels, there is no defense against an accusation, since emotion cannot be disputed. According to the authors, this Orwellian enforced emotional neutrality has infected my own alma mater, Ithaca College, where in March the student government voted to request that the college create an anonymous reporting system and keep detailed records about every student’s use of microaggressive sexist or racist speech, with punishments appropriate to the number of naughty words a student says.
When I was a student there many years ago, they already had a system like that in place, though it was not linked to individual students’ names. They called it “BIAS Alerts,” though I can’t remember what the acronym BIAS was supposed to stand for. They would post a weekly flyer everywhere on campus listing racist, sexist, or homophobic language or incidents observed and reported that week, and these alerts were the laughingstock of the school. Some of the less progressive students would fabricate “BIAS” incidents in order to generate a BIAS Alert and then laugh at it. I shudder to think what it must be like to attend a school where similar types of reporting aren’t just for “awareness” but serve as a totalitarian system of punishment.
OK, so what does this have to do with history? Quite a bit. First, the authors report that professors (or, let’s be honest, adjunct instructors and T.A.s) are increasingly trimming their courses to fit the new mold, to the point that it simply becomes easier to avoid challenging students in any way than to deal with the fallout if someone is “offended.” There are two immediate issues that arise from this: First, this makes it more difficult to teach any sort of material that might offend a student’s belief system, and second, it creates a situation where students expect that their emotional reactions—and thus their ideologies—should be elevated above facts, something they will carry with them into the future. Both of these problems directly impact questions of fringe science and history.
When I went off to college in 1999, as I wrote in my introduction to The Cult of Alien Gods a decade ago, I was deeply interested in fringe history and convinced that Graham Hancock was onto something with Fingerprints of the Gods. One of my professors, in a course on skepticism in journalism, challenged me to critically examine a piece of journalism, and I chose Fingerprints (since it was billed as the work of a journalist) and pulled the book apart claim by claim, which began to undermine my trust in Hancock’s judgment. This same professor also showed the class the NOVA episode tearing apart Erich von Däniken’s ancient astronaut theory.
We know from surveys that a large number of college students are open to ancient astronaut and lost civilization beliefs, not to mention creationism and Nephilim theories. Would a student entering school today still be challenged to examine the foundations of those beliefs? Or would those students declare the challenge offensive? How can one teach critical thinking in a world where the authorities themselves prefer motivated reasoning and emotional thinking? There have already been reports of creationist students using claims of offense to object to references to evolution.
I can’t help but see a reflection of this in the article that ran a few days ago to mark H. P. Lovecraft’s 125th birthday. In that article, Philip Eil writes about the difficulties that Lovecraft’s extreme racism have created for his fans, and he talks about the way the debate over Lovecraft’s racism, particularly in terms of the World Fantasy Award statuette, descended into questions of “political correctness,” which is not a world removed from trigger warnings and microaggression. Lovecraft’s legacy, Eli says, rests on a tension between the surface Gothic of his work and the underlying rage at the decline of WASP culture. “I haven’t made peace with this tension,” Eil writes, “and I’m not sure I ever will. But I have decided that perhaps he’s the literary icon our country deserves. The stories he conjured, in many ways, say as much about his bigotry as they do his genius.”
Lovecraft’s foaming rage at immigrants presages by nearly a century the rise of Donald Trump, and the underlying motives are not all that different. A particular type of race, class, and gender-based privilege is in steep decline, and those who once exercised it direct their anxiety outward toward those they feel are stealing that privilege. It perhaps says something about our culture that where twenty or thirty years ago critics focused on Lovecraft’s cosmic themes, but today it is his view on race, class, and gender that dominate. I would say that this marks his final ascendance into the academic canon, but I fear his stories would require a trigger warning before that could happen.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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