On hypersensitivity and educational censorship. Written before the summer of 2022.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges, writes Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt for The Atlantic’s September 2015 issue in their article, The Coddling of the American Mind: a movement, led by students, is emerging, aiming to scrub all campuses clean of words and ideas that they find “triggering”, “offensive”, or “microaggressive”. More and more, American college students are shying away from speaking about difficult topics, using the excuse that the said topics may “trigger” past trauma in their fellow students—all to the detriment of their education, argues Lukianoff and Haidt. Conditioning students seeking higher education to be hypersensitive through the avoidance of difficult topics is anti-intellectual and counterintuitive for higher learning, and leads to purposeless victimisation rather than education; students should be taught to evaluate, not evade.
Being an environment that is built to foster intellectuality, colleges should be treated as such. They are not loitering spaces for young adults to socialise and relax, surrounded by a filtered bubble of their own design that is catered to the most obscure of disclinations. Students seeking higher education should be pushed to juggle ideas they never have before, in manners in which they were never able to do so previously. Academic discussions of this nature will naturally tend to venture into territories that are not often breached in everyday conversation, hence earning them the label of “difficult” topics. As young academics, college students should be able to tackle these issues head-on. But they, in fact, are not. From a report by the National Coalition Against Censorship, nearly one in five of a nationwide survey’s participants reported that students at their college have lobbied for the inclusion of trigger warnings in their courses, with a substantial number from this same group participating in efforts to make trigger warnings a requirement on campus. At Harvard, professors have been asked by students to refrain from teaching them—them being aspiring lawyers—sexual assault laws, citing that the topic was too “distressful” (Lukianoff and Haidt). This baffling occurrence is one of many in recent years which displays a new push for censorship in education, under the guise of mental health considerations. Akin to the Third Reich’s book burning in the Second World War, this lobbying for the intentional censoring of selected topics, which should in truth be thoroughly taught and discussed, is extremely harmful in the long run, and anti-intellectual to the core.
In his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury explores in detail the direction in which our society is spiralling if educational censorship is allowed to persist. Bradbury’s world is one where the individual no longer exists. All firemen, including Guy Montag, the novel’s protagonist, look alike (Bradbury). They all had “black hair, black brows, a fiery face, and a blue-steel shaved but unshaved look” (Bradbury). With no unique variations amongst them, these men are all “mirror images of [Montag]” (Bradbury). They exist simply to fill their roles in society, and have all been groomed as such. Before them, their fathers were firemen (Bradbury). And before that, so were their grandfathers (Bradbury). No longer does true freedom of choice exist. Nor are citizens taught to think for themselves. Rumination exists in sparse pockets and, like weeds, are constantly watched for to be dug out by the roots. “It doesn’t think anything we don’t want it to think,” say the firemen whilst speaking of their Mechanical Hound, a robotic hunting dog used to hunt down moving targets—like free-thinking, book-reading dissidents (Bradbury). The increasing amount of censorship in education will hone a particular type of person to be released into society. Much like the Hound, these people will not think anything “we” do not want it to think, because “we” have not taught them to think at all. In real life, the dystopian reality Fahrenheit 451 speaks of has not yet come to pass. But how long until it does? If the young, impressionable minds of our future generations keep being coddled in this manner, how long until the change we’ve wrought upon their very psyches becomes irreversible? Bradbury’s novel serves as a grim warning. Lukianoff and Haidt’s article, then, is a call for action, and it is a call that we must all heed in earnest.
Contrary to the excuse that is often used to justify educational censorship, research suggests that the avoidance of topics related to one’s trauma is harmful, not helpful (Association for Psychological Science). The chronic use of trigger warnings, and the constant unwarranted, unqualified feedback telling an individual with post-traumatic stress disorder that they must, under no circumstances, encounter the topics of their trauma anywhere—even in class or creative media—forces them to see trauma as central to their identity, which worsens its impact in the long run, according to Harvard researcher Payton Jones (Association for Psychology Science). A recent related study conducted by another researcher, in which participants were randomly assigned potentially distressing reading passages, either with or without trigger warnings, found that readers that were given passages with trigger warnings reported more anxiety whilst reading these passages, compared to readers that read the exact same text without trigger warnings (Kaufman). To make matters worse, participants in this study have been screened to ensure none actually have trauma-related psychological issues (Kaufman). This proves that trigger warnings are nothing but psychological conditioning. Richard McNally, Harvard’s director of clinical training, has also affirmed that they are “counter-therapeutic”, because “avoidance maintains PTSD” (McNally). With this being the case, consider: how can an individual move on from their trauma if they are always told that they cannot, and must instead avoid it forever? In academic environments, trigger warnings also create an unrealistic bubble, free of all negative thoughts and concepts, which does nothing to prepare students for life outside of academia. Pitching in, Kimberly Zapata, a two-time survivor of suicide herself, also reaffirms that censoring these difficult topics promote their taboo, and make them “forbidden”, further discouraging people who are struggling from asking for help (Zapata). What we must now do, then, is to stop the snowball from rolling further down the hill.
Already, the wave of censorship has washed over the shores of our institutions. Already, its attractive, but ultimately unattainable, vision of a world free from all negativity has entranced our friends and family, coworkers and employees. Already, does our present reality have its own Coleman Silks, persecuted and exiled based on faulty logic and senseless sensitivity (Roth). Picture the world Bradbury painted in Fahrenheit 451: everyone is “happy”, yet, no one has true happiness. Thinkers, once celebrated, are targeted and killed off like unwanted strays. Knowing this, it is not impossible to imagine the top of the hill, on which the snowball used to be no bigger than a child’s palm. Neither is it impossible for us to imagine the situation then being that of ours now: a rise of censorship in education—noticeable, yet not so much that it is a widespread concern. Those who have observed it and called for change are labelled “insensitive” and “inconsiderate”, whilst those who cannot simply do not care. We have all been wooed by the idea that it is possible to live in a world free of all negative thoughts and emotions, when in truth it is absurd to even think that we can avoid unpleasantry through fragmented censorship. No matter how hard we try, we cannot always avoid descending into the den of difficult topics. We must teach our successors to be able to live and thrive in the often harsh and brutal reality of our world. We cannot allow the minds of our future generations to be coddled for any longer, to fall into misuse and disuse. If we do not act now, there will never be change. Ever.
Association for Psychological Science. “The Following News Release Contains Potentially Disturbing Content: Trigger Warnings Fail to Help and May Even Harm.” Association for Psychological Science – APS, 9 June 2020, http://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/trigger-warnings-fail-to-help.html. Accessed 6 May 2022.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 19 Oct. 1953.
Hutchful, Abena. “NCAC Report: What’s All This about Trigger Warnings?” National Coalition against Censorship, ncac.org/resource/ncac-report-whats-all-this-about-trigger-warnings#:~:text=Although%20fewer%20than%201%25%20of. Accessed 19 May 2022.
Kaufman, Scott Barry. “Are Trigger Warnings Actually Helpful?” Scientific American Blog Network, 5 Apr. 2019, blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/are-trigger-warnings-actually-helpful/. Accessed 19 May 2022.
Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic, 31 July 2017, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/. Accessed 28 Apr. 2022.
McNally, Richard J. “If You Need a Trigger Warning, You Need P.T.S.D. Treatment – NYTimes.com.” Nytimes.com, 13 Sept. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/09/13/do-trigger-warnings-work/if-you-need-a-trigger-warning-you-need-ptsd-treatment. Accessed 6 May 2022.
Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. 2002. Houghton Mifflin, 2019.
Zapata, Kimberly. “Stop Slapping a Trigger Warning Label on My Life.” Scary Mommy, 26 June 2021, http://www.scarymommy.com/stop-slapping-trigger-warning-label-life. Accessed 6 May 2022.