Universities must stay their trigger fingers

This is a cross-post by James Snell

As an A2 student who has spent over a year planning my progression to higher education, university is never far from my mind. When reading about the sorts of campus censorship – no-platformings and trigger warnings and safe spaces away from critical ideas and interpretations – which seem increasingly prevalent at British and American universities of late, my first thought is often one of irritation.

What do these activists, well intentioned though they may be, take me for? Am I and many students like me too meek and feeble to take on the slings and arrows of a university education? Are we in need of official protection from things such as dangerous and unwelcome thoughts and opinions? The pointed rhetorical questions go on.

But beyond this basic antipathy to a particular selection of my contemporaries intent on ‘self-infantilization’, there is an important debate to be had about how we want education in this country to work. The results of the ensuing clash could jeopardise the value of higher education at its most elemental.

While it is of course important to behave with individual compassion, it is hard to escape the conclusion that measures like safe spaces and trigger warnings and the boycotting of controversial speakers are being advocated more from a position of ideological fervour than as a genuine response to a widespread and pressing need. A sanctimonious letter to the New York Times by an Andrew Meerwarth crystallises this point rather succinctly. After an absurd introduction in which he generalises about an entire generation ‘and what [it] find[s] important’, the writer states that the ‘consideration of [undesirable] ideas is not at all helpful in bolstering campus intellectual life.’ I beg to differ, and I hope readers can detect the animus to free discourse lurking under the inert prose. (I would also like to take this opportunity to exempt myself from membership of the generation Meerwarth invokes.)

Added to this perception is a great deal of research, which appears to suggest that devices and strategies such as trigger warnings and safe spaces are actually counter-intuitive, and that they prevent victims of trauma from exposure to their fears and problems, a sometimes vital component of effective treatment. Richard J. McNally, a Harvard psychology professor, has written a comprehensive summary of some recent studies:

Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.

This turns the notion of trigger warnings entirely on its head. While attempting to safeguard the vulnerable – an admirable objective – the use of warnings actually strengthens the source of their anxiety, and what is more, it also acts as an effective block on activities which could be beneficial in overcoming the issues at hand.

If trigger warnings are actually counter-productive, as this research indicates, then their proliferation could only be advocated and carried out either by campaigners ignorant of these conclusions, or by those who are ideologically bound to the idea regardless of its merits. Both of those possibilities ought to make an independent observer more than a little suspicious.

And further to that, the increasing censoriousness and banning of individuals from university debating platforms is a worrying trend. I do not agree with Marine Le Pen. She is a proto-fascist, and far too keen on Vladimir Putin for my liking; but I would have liked to have seen her speak at the Oxford Union, and to have cross-examined her on the policies and anti-Semitic ramblings of her father, rather than to have been in the crowd who protested against her presence.

Such activity – however well intentioned – can only backfire. Giving unpleasant or marginal people a platform does not just allow them an opportunity to broadcast their views; it also allows debate to develop. And when we refuse to debate a section of society – because their views are too heinous or their associations too unpalatable – we ultimately lose out on two fronts: having been no-platformed, the organisation or individual can happily add it to their credentials, stoking marginal and anti-mainstream appeal; and the opportunity is lost to challenge and expose their arguments in public discourse.

When I go to university next year I want to learn; I want to learn by being confronted with different and contrary ideas and propositions, and to be challenged and disputed at every turn by fresh arguments and new ways of looking at things. And I want this challenge to extend even to ideas I might consider unpleasant or which make me uncomfortable. The pursuit of this ‘right to be comfortable’ seems entirely to miss the point of the process. What else is an education for? As it is, however, with the current climate inching ever closer towards implementing these immoral and self-defeating policies, I sometimes worry about the value of going to university at all.