The Problems on Campuses │ Chaya Gurkov

The gradual hijacking of words to broaden their implicit definition is a dangerous game the left likes to play.

If you were to look plainly at the word feminism – the idea that you support women’s rights and equality of the sexes – it is not a difficult notion to contend with. In fact, anyone with a shred of common sense would be quick to identify themselves as a feminist if this were the case. But when the Left expanded its meaning to include pro-choice perspectives and united consensus of male patriarchal oppression, it became a concept we can no longer find common ground on.

They have done this with the words ‘Nazi’ and ‘alt-right’ by using them as labels for anyone who questions the conventional wisdom of the Left and upsets the fragile nature of their beliefs. The words “trigger- warning” have not been spared, drifting so far away from the original meaning of initial notices for people whose diagnosed PTSD might result in “re-experiencing symptoms” (such as intrusive thoughts or flashbacks) towards including warnings before information that may be deemed offensive, politically incorrect, or dangerous. This expansion includes trigger warnings before material dealing with racism, homophobia, death and even insects.

Literature is under fire as well, with books such as Scott F. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby labelled for its “abusive and misogynistic violence” and Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway for addressing issues of suicide. Ideas being unconventional and labelled as controversial isn’t a new phenomenon by any measure, but the idea that certain books, words, and speakers pose an existential threat and have the power to traumatize or even harm you, is. This subjectivism that places emotional experience as the lens through which you view the word has led to concepts like safe spaces and no-platforming on campuses, shutting out anything that leads to discomfort.

As explained in the book The Coddling of the American Mind, by viewing the world through a dichotomy of unsafe versus safe (an idea called “safetyism”) what we used to view as emotional discomfort is now labelled as dangerous.

There are multiple issues that come along with this phantasmal compassion of coddling students: the very first is its ineffectiveness. A Harvard research paper showed that trigger warnings not only had no significant effect on the students it warned but, in some cases, slightly increased self-reported anxiety among people who thought words can do emotional damage.

Clearly, trigger warnings are futile at best and damaging at worst. Another problem is how antithetical the idea of comfort is to what college stands for (or at least used to) – a place to acquire knowledge and challenge your preconceived understandings. New material exposed to you in college might not be something you’re comfortable with, and that may very well be the point of the class – to get you uncomfortable enough to elicit questions; further developing your beliefs. By trying to circumvent challenging ideas you fail to prepare for what’s outside the classroom doors. Life isn’t guided by a road filled with trigger warning signs and safe space havens for us to take refuge in when emotions overcome us. In fact, the only way to deal with something that makes you uncomfortable is to deal with what it is, albeit a little at a time.

How about the problem of who determines what is offensive once all borders have been stripped away? The interpretation is left to anyone and therefore leaves the educators to cater to the most sensitive person in the room. With teachers under constant fear of being reported without hesitation to the dean/diversity board – possibly leading to admonishment or being fired – academic freedom is under threat. Some with a direct attack such as in Oberlin University where a policy advised professors to “[r]emove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals” or some with indirect attacks where professors avoid topics altogether that may cause emotional upheaval.

Jonathan Haidt, a professor at Stern School of Business, said in a debate about this issue- “I used to be a provocative teacher. I don’t provoke anymore, I just play it straight. I don’t tell jokes, I don’t show any videos…” In Brett Weinstein’s case – an ex-professor at Evergreen State University – the mere challenge at observing the schools traditional “day of absence” in 2017 when all white faculty members and students were asked to stay home resulted in mob-like behaviour from students when Brett arrived at the university that day, pushing viral videos of enraged students calling him racist and demanding he resign. Universities have to ask the hard question of who exactly they are helping when they allow this problem to fester. College should be a place where intellectual combat and freedom of expression are encouraged, not the disengagement and silencing that is quickly taking its place.

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