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.
8/25/2015 03:52:19 am
The UK TV News is excessively paternalistic giving us all flash photography warnings and "Some viewers may find the following images disturbing" of ALREADY CENSORED FOOTAGE where folks need to access Youtube to get the full coverage. Impacts of plane crashes - where the impacts cannot even be seen because it happened behind trees - is also censored. Gee, This sort of nurse-maiding did not exist 30 years ago.
8/25/2015 08:01:57 pm
30 years ago, UK TV was censoring the voices of legitimately elected Irish politicians, so I'm not sure where you get the idea from that this sort of nurse-maiding didn't exist back then.
8/25/2015 09:59:18 pm
The original voices of Sinn Fein and the IRA were censored (Airey Neave was a close personal friend of Thatcher) but there was dubbing.
8/26/2015 03:09:53 am
8/26/2015 03:18:18 am
I remember the BBC passing a directive never to mention Peter Mandelson's homosexuality (following the disclosure by Diane Abbott who said it was open knowledge in the House of Commons). That only publicised the information even more.
8/26/2015 09:20:31 pm
So, censoring their voices then, just like I said.
8/27/2015 08:08:32 am
The BBC showed crashings 30 years ago, and did not nursemaid us all with flash photography warnings. The BBC even showed predatory animals catching their prey and gobbling them up, as well as killer whales catching baby pup seals and swallowing them.
8/27/2015 08:47:46 am
Some 20 years ago a female slalom skier was killed at a competition when she tripped and went head first into a post. The news stations here happily showed the accident followed by her lying motionless in the snow.
8/25/2015 04:11:22 am
I had to laugh when I read this one. I just dropped my son off at Ithaca College this past Sunday and in his dorm room was literature about fighting "bias"..I read the pamphlet and laughed. It really read like a Monty Python skit of 1984. Of course kids will manipulate any PC system, they are kids and driven like all of us by self interest. I had a Jewish roommate from a very wealthy family as an undergrad 30 years ago and everytime things didn't go his way it was "anti semitism" and he was on his way to what at that time was the "diversity" office.
8/25/2015 08:00:54 pm
It started from good intentions, which is what makes it worse. I'm as PC and liberal as they come, but I think "trigger warnings" are a ludicrous system for universities and schools. The real world has no trigger warnings.
8/25/2015 04:22:52 am
The hyper conservatives of Fox news, not really news IMO, seem to dislike all the politically correct stuff and coddling of their generation, but when it comes to younger generations, college voters, they're treated like they are all dumb stoners who will turn liberal if not coddled into following some yes man politico. After all, a mediocre leader is better than an evil one, and a rich fantasy leader, even better. Then they cry foul when the citizen journalists show all of the footage of both sides and make either pundit look like Yosemite Sam or Wylie Coyote.. (Cartoon characters from the 60s). They complain about being too PC about calling out terrorist groups or making thinly veiled racist comments about immigration, over there at Faux News, and others, and wonder why they never get them to vote. As for a similar deal in colleges, it seems to tout the liberal sentiment in some of the louder colleges, and makes people seem like they can't make up their minds. Real harassment on campus is a thing, as is date rape, but if there are too many faculty people crying wolf about these things, when a real thing happens they might ignore it. Then someone's going to get sued. It seems they cannot make a distinction between perceived actions and actual actions. I would not take a funny look or even a curse word as an assault. That is just someone being a jerk. An assault is something where there is actual contact. So there is this odd double standard from all sides. Do people start monitoring our thoughts like in 1984 to keep us all nice, or do people actually try and think before they say or do things? Education trumps ignorance. Trump himself is another story. Lovecraft would have loved that guy. What a joke. It depends on who is the one doing the harassment. If it's some rich student or someone in charge of something, or heaven forbid a teacher, they can get better lawyers. If it's just some drunken student's word against another, not so much. Should we tell things like they are or not? Should we be afraid to tell the bullies where to go? It seems like they're making this over complicated. Find the bullies and punish them. Don't punish the victims.
8/25/2015 04:51:21 am
"I must respectfully disagree, good sir/madam. You have your opinions, I have mine."
8/25/2015 06:37:17 am
Political correctness is the norm in much of the real world. Businesses are quite used to being politically correct for business reasons. This is nothing new even if acceptability is always changing. This should not be surprising because most businesses generally try to avoid offending people unless they believe it will get them more money. AFLAC firing Gilbert Gottfried was a business decision. Companies are severing ties to Trump for good reasons. It should not be seen as unique to liberals as conservative political correctness is a thing and it can hardly be denied that conservatives have tried getting professors punished for saying things that were politically incorrect to conservatives. Conservatives calls for civility are often just calls for conservative political correctness.
8/25/2015 06:52:49 am
What's different, though, is that today we are looking for administrative or even judicial solutions to what was once a social problem. If someone was offensive or prone to saying and doing offensive things, the solution was to shun the person, which society once did. But with weaker social institutions, we now want social behavior regulated by the state, and that's bad news for everyone. The standards for when the state should get involved have gradually pushed down from imminent danger or chronic harassment to simple, one-time offensiveness, a term that is slippery enough to be used to cover anything someone disagrees with.
8/25/2015 11:12:24 am
"If someone was offensive or prone to saying and doing offensive things, the solution was to shun the person"
8/26/2015 02:45:20 am
"If someone was offensive or prone to saying and doing offensive things, the solution was to shun the person"
8/26/2015 03:12:37 pm
""I must respectfully disagree, good sir/madam. You have your opinions, I have mine."
8/25/2015 06:06:08 am
Speaking as someone attending college right now--a non-traditional student seeking a new degree--I think that, frankly, this is alarmist bullshit. Even within the US Department of Education's legal definitions, there is recognition of the difference between "classroom material" and "offensive speech." My more recent degree, in education, discussed all KINDS of "offensive" subjects--including child rape, abuse, treatment of individuals with disabilities, racism, sexism, religious belief systems, homelessness, mental illness, and abject poverty.
8/25/2015 06:29:16 am
I imagine that there is a great deal of variation from school to school, and there is certainly a bit of alarmism in the authors' article. (It would seemingly be impossible to police speech as closely as they imply.) That said, the speech codes do exist and can be documented, so they aren't entirely the product of journalists' imagination. It's also a fact that students are more demanding today about asserting their right not to be offended.
8/25/2015 07:55:16 am
Hoolaboos about political correctness at universities are older than I am. Email and other modern technology makes it vastly easier to make it look like it is more common than ever even if it isn't.
8/25/2015 07:57:08 am
I was an instructor accused of something like "offensive speech" because the student wanted a worked solution for homework posted - to which I disagreed, suggesting it would be better if the student attempted the problem before asking for the solution. Which the student deemed my position to be offensive and led to an immediate investigation and eventual dismissal. Students have all the power. SO much for academic freedom.
8/25/2015 10:42:30 am
Political correctness and hypersensitivity have gone too far. i work for the government and it has gotten to the point where we can't do an over the hill birthday party for a 50 year old not because he would be offended but because someone else who is older may be offended. You have to be careful when you go after someone on technical terms even because they may take it the wrong way.
8/25/2015 11:38:04 am
"It seems like they're making this over complicated. Find the bullies and punish them. Don't punish the victims."
8/26/2015 05:10:38 am
HPL's extreme racism doesn't present any difficulty for me, he was a product of his time and if you read other genres of fiction (or non-fiction for that matter) then you'll see that he wasn't extreme among his contemporaries. In fact, his views were pretty mainstream.
8/28/2015 09:04:22 am
I'm Italian and I can't always tell the difference...
8/26/2015 11:28:11 am
As a current university student, I don't think I can quite agree with Jason on this one. One of my current courses involves war and literature and the professor put a paragraph in the syllabus about the content of the materials we would be engaged with. Now obviously most people know what to expect with depictions of war. But the warning does its job.
8/26/2015 03:31:51 pm
You know, I wouldn't say I'm big on what some people would call "political correctness run amok", but at the same time. I have to agree with V's statement that it is "alarmist bullshit". As annoying as it can be I wouldn't exactly say it is as prevalent as its made out to be.
9/3/2015 10:49:46 pm
Thanks for the thoughtful and well written article. We're all known as much for our faults as our genius; Lovecraft was a bit racist, but so what? He was a human. If readers want to reject "Rats in the Walls" because the protagonist has a pet cat named Nigger then it's their loss. It's one of his best crafted stories.
9/4/2015 07:34:44 am
I think it was in the movie "Battle for Britain" where one of the pilots had a pet dog named "nigger" as well. The clip from the movie was actually used on the Pink Floyd "The Wall" album.
9/19/2015 12:36:33 am
Actually it's "The Dam Busters", that single single fact is why every attempt to remake the film has been unable to get off the ground.
8/23/2016 03:59:47 pm
One of Agatha Christie's novels was titled "Ten Little Niggers".
9/19/2015 12:35:27 am
It seems that President Obama agrees, that this movement is counter productive:
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