I first heard the phrase “trigger warning” a couple years after I’d finished grad school, around 2014. Most of my peers had gone on to become city college professors, and one of them was regaling me with the new slang of the younger Millennial subset, those who were fresh out of high school.
“Bae. On fleek. Ratchet,” he listed. I made him explain them to me one by one. Conclusion: not worth learning.
Then came “trigger warning.”
“It’s when you warn someone before you say something that might trigger them emotionally due to a trauma,” my friend explained. That didn’t seem like such a bad idea. It’s like when you’re watching the news and the anchor warns you that what you are about to see might be disturbing.
But as my professor friend explained, students were not only requesting trigger warnings so they could brace for uncomfortable discussions. They were demanding the right to leave the room.
In February 2017, I turned on the local news and saw flames. Young people in masks were brawling and shouting and lighting things on fire. The text at the bottom of the screen identified the location as UC Berkeley.
A man who has referred to feminism as a cancer, who views rape culture as mythological, and whose language is regularly offensive toward people who are not white or male – a reaction he is proud of eliciting, by the way – was going to speak on campus.
At first, a peaceful protest formed. But, according to campus police, outside agitators joined in, spurring the violence unfolding onscreen.
The university canceled the appearance of the speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, then a senior editor of Breitbart who had been invited by the campus Republicans. He had to be evacuated from the school grounds. The month prior, Yiannopoulos’ speaking engagement at UC Davis was also canceled due to protests.
I have since watched videos of Yiannopoulos and have to say, I find his words and ideals to be vulgar. But my opinion on the matter hasn’t changed. Stopping a speech by someone with inflammatory views by inciting violence is perhaps one the most grotesque violations of the principles of higher education that I have ever seen.
It doesn’t matter that these inciters of violence were supposedly not students. Did you catch a glimpse of them? What age did they look to you? They could have been in college, even if they weren’t actually students. They were Millennials.
When I was in college from 2006 to 2010, social justice-oriented groups became popular on campus. As someone who is a feminist and fully supports LGBT rights and equality (you know, your typical Millennial female from Long Beach), I agreed with many of their viewpoints.
But what disturbed me was a growing movement to police speech – one that seemed to arise from these groups.
Around this time, campus social justice groups introduced the concept of safe spaces. These were spaces people could go to where they could feel safe from judgment. LGBT individuals, for example, could go to a safe space if they were feeling alienated. In that space, they would be surrounded by others who either felt the same way or supported them. In essence, there isn’t anything wrong with this idea.
Related to this concept was that of the trigger warning. The same people who needed safe spaces argued they were entitled to a warning before any words were uttered or content disseminated in their presence that might trigger an emotional reaction in them.
The problem is that on college campuses, where safe spaces and trigger warnings have become the norm, controversial speech is becoming conflated with micro-aggressions (another trending term, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group”) or even hate speech.
Uncomfortable discussions about race or gender or class or religion have been elevated to the level of “triggering.” And those who are triggered are increasingly demanding the right to remove themselves from the academic conversation at hand – creating their own intellectual safe space.
Last year, one professor acquaintance of mine relayed an incident about a student who insisted that any discussion of her religion in the classroom was triggering and insisted upon leaving when it came up. As that professor pointed out, she misinterpreted the concept of being triggered emotionally by a trauma to simply being made uncomfortable by classroom dialogue.
UC Berkeley recently canceled an appearance by conservative Ann Coulter after protests occurred and students demanded she be disinvited. Across the country, some universities have taken similar actions, folding to pressure from students who find the speech of certain guest speakers detestable.
Others are not. Last year, the University of Chicago took a stand and sent out a letter to prospective students that read in part: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives that are at odds with their own.”
Good on you, Chicago.
I know it’s not all our fault, but if there is one thing I cannot forgive my generation for, it’s this crusade for limited speech. Perhaps it is because I deal in words.
To you Millennials out there who are choosing censorship, let me tell you something. Choosing blindness and deafness will allow the ideals you find disdainful to take hold without your notice.
If you’d stop leaving the room during your classes, you’d know that from history.