Saturday, September 03, 2016

Trigger warning: No safe space in this blog!

We have a presidential candidate who, for months, has been at ease behaving worse than an insult comic.  At least the insult comic makes us laugh!  Everything is in the open, so much so that if I had a kid at home, I would be worried about the language.

In fact, offensive language has pretty much become the norm in popular culture.  Popular music is not the "At last" lyrics that Etta James melted us with, and movies for grown-ups rarely are clean enough to watch with one's grandmother.  The other day I was waiting at the traffic light when two young white guys were addressing each other with the n* word.  The words f*k and b*h have become so normal that they have pretty much lost their shock value.

The irony, the bitter and tragic irony, is that against this backdrop, college students apparently want to be treated as kids, and plenty of professors and administrators at colleges and universities are willing to bend over backwards to make sure that these legal adults will be treated as kids!  How bizarre that "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" have become a part of our daily conversation!

I have always been an ardent supporter of free thinking and speech when it is adults all around.  Especially in a university setting, where we are in the very business of inquiry that is not constrained.  Which is why the letters to students from two private universities encourages me.  The following is from the letter that Claremont McKenna College sent out:
To benefit fully from the free exchange of challenging ideas, we must ensure that all people with different viewpoints, experiences, and analyses are included in our conversations. We protect the freedom of association as an individual and collective right. We reject exclusion and ad hominem attacks as barriers to learning. All of us —- students, faculty and staff -— must commit to high standards of civility, respect, and appreciation for differences. All of us must value and support one another in challenging ourselves to analyze issues from many sides, to develop rigorous tools of intellectual inquiry, and to cultivate the habits of mind of an educated citizen.
Now, just because I encourage students to think, it does not mean that they can freely use words like f*k or b*h or n* in the classroom.  They cannot.  Engaging in ideas is what we do, and we can easily do that without the Trumpian language.  However, it is the engagement with ideas that apparently "kids" these days are worried about.  How strange and how disappointing!

Claremont's leaders make it very clear:
We encourage our professors to challenge our students intellectually. We teach sensitive material. We do not mandate trigger warnings.

I was intrigued by the name of the president: Hiram E. Chodosh.  Not your 'John Smith" name.  So, I looked it up; the guy has some impressive credentials.  I spotted this:
He worked in more than 20 countries in Asia and the Middle East, serving in advisory positions on pressing problems in justice reform for the World Bank Justice Reform Group, the International Monetary Fund Legal Department, and many court systems, non-profit organizations, and national commissions. He also served as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in India in 2003.
Hey, there is an India connection as well!

The letter was co-signed by the provost, Peter Uvin; this name also interested me--sounded "foreign."  It is; "a native of Belgium."
His academic specialization has been in the development, conflict, and human rights areas, foremost in Rwanda and Burundi. The African Studies Association honored his Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda as the most outstanding book of 1999. In 2006, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used to conduct research in Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, on life in a post-civil war environment.
These two have spent a good chunk of their lives trying to understand some of the toughest problems in this world, in some of the most materially deprived societies.  I imagine students who want "safe spaces" going to either one of them, and the president or the provost telling them something like "let us talk about the unsafe spaces in Rwanda or Iraq."

Is it too much to ask adults to behave like adults?


Mike Hoth said...

We live in a difficult time for decency. Especially here in the US, there is a growing movement to "do whatever you want, so long as nobody gets hurt". Cursing is viewed as harmless under this umbrella, so long as slurs are avoided. However, we can't discuss something like rape without first warning those who may be sensitive to the topic. Thus, we fall into a strange limbo where you're allowed to say whatever you want so long as you aren't offending anybody.

Ramesh said...

Oh a rich post full of a number of issues you raise.

On the language, I am totally with you. The swearing is all crass. It is quite possible to put down somebody, if that is the intention, far more effectively with words that are not obscene. We remember, "Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy", or "Its the economy stupid", better than any of the language your current candidate uses.

Completely endorse you on the thinking and free speech in campuses. If you can't have that in an educational institution, then where else can you have it. And yes, it cannot extend to shouting Fire and using all the asterisked words you have mentioned.

As for students becoming wussies, whatever happened to the great American tradition of encouraging youngsters to take a year off and travel the world or better still join the Peace Corps. Then you don't need "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" - I actually don't even know what they mean.

I don't know if Tom and Nancy are still readers of your blog; they represent the very best of America in the issues you raise in this post. Your country must hold them, and those like them, as shining role models in dignity of speech, free thinking and understanding of the world.

Anne in Salem said...

Bravo, Claremont McKenna College and Univ of Chicago for treating adults as adults. When these protected kids get in the real world, they are in for a huge awakening. No one will care that they are offended, and few will accept their filthy mouths. I hope more universities follow suit and stop coddling their students.

Maybe if the students listen to and think about the various viewpoints from which they are not protected they will realize that differences are not threatening and that they can learn from someone who lives, believes or thinks differently. And maybe they will learn to develop more cohesive arguments and deeper thoughts as they are challenged by others. Wouldn't that be marvelous?

Sriram Khé said...

It is because you conservatives agree with me like this that my faculty colleagues think that I am one right-wing nutcase ... ;)

Taking a year off to explore the world? Join the Peace Corps? Are you nuts? All that feel goodism has been thrown out thanks to your Thatcher/Reagan market revolution where the only things matter are those that can be measured in money. Tom and Nancy are from the JFK era, not from the GWB years ;) We live in a world where the bottom-line is "ask not what you can do for your country, but demand what the country ought to do for you" ;)

Dream on that universities will stop coddling their students. If I had a dime for every time faculty and admin referred to students as "kids" I will by now have way more money than what Ramesh has ;) Students too love being treated as kids, it seems like. Try telling them that "kids" can't have sex and they will gladly remind you that they are adults ... hehehe ... It is a bizarro world.

Yes, there are issues like rape that have to approached with utmost sensitivity. Not only the content knowledge but also the appropriate atmosphere in the classroom. But then those are not topics that all of us teach--it is a highly specialized topic area anyway, and both the faculty and students fully know what those courses entail.

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