Monday, August 29, 2016

Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

There's been a flurry of attention over the weekend to a "welcome" letter sent to incoming freshmen by the University of Chicago, advising them that the institution's
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 at odds with their own.
This set off a predictable storm of praise and criticism.  I'm going to focus on the criticism, though I might return to the praise another time.  (Or maybe I don't need to: John Scalzi wrote a pretty good post about it.)  I've written here before at length about "safe spaces," and will try not to repeat myself too much today.  But the criticism that I've seen has mostly been dreadful: intellectually and morally dishonest.

I'll begin by saying that I have reservations about Chicago's rejection of "the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."  As long as they're not explicitly called "safe spaces," such places are normal in intellectual circles.  I think that much of the panic about Creationism and Intelligent Design represents a desire to establish classrooms as just such "safe spaces," but for the Good Guys.  In practice, of course, certain ideas and perspectives are ruled out in advance in every classroom, if only because teaching the conflicts takes a lot of time.  But the phobic reaction of many secularists to religious ideas (or what they believe to be religious ideas) suggests that something else is going on, something less exalted, something like the very narrow-mindedness, fear of difference, and authoritarianism such people fondly assume themselves to be free of.  Roy Edroso posted on Tuesday about an antigay bigot's dismissal of "the 'born-this-way' myth," and rather quickly got tangled in his own rhetoric.  (I quit reading the comments after one regular jeered, inaccurately, at the Bible as a supposedly 4,000 year old work of Middle Eastern shepherds; they only got worse after that.)  Of course it's simply not debatable in Edroso's safe space whether sexual orientation is inborn, any more than the reverse is true in David French's safe space; and rationality quickly goes out the window if you question it.  But there are good reasons to question it, starting with the fact that the science doesn't work.  A reader wrote that despite everything, the idea that he was born gay has an emotional appeal.  I'm not sure what the appeal of the belief is, but whatever it is, it's emotional not rational.

But I digress.  I suppose I should do some investigation of whatever science is involved with emotional triggers, but a cursory look indicates that there isn't much, and what there is doesn't really conflict with the University of Chicago's stance as set out in their letter.  The people who are attacking Chicago seem to be using "trigger warning" extremely loosely at best.  This piece at the Huffington Post, for example, by their "Deputy Healthy Living Editor" (a title that alone inspires absolute confidence), relies on innuendo rather than reason:
In other words, students who may be susceptible to mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder or panic disorders, are undeserving of a warning that a lecture or guest speaker may aggravate those issues or traumatic experiences.
Actually, no.  It could be argued that the letter itself is a trigger warning, that a liberal-arts education may "aggravate those issues or traumatic experiences."  But the writer offers no real evidence that such aggravation can be avoided by trigger warnings.  She claims that "research clearly shows that atmospheres that promote negative stereotypes can act as barriers to treatment, furthering stigma and causing additional psychological trauma."  The page she links to, however, doesn't really address what she says it does and doesn't support her argument (I'll be generous and call it that, though it's stretching the word absurdly to do so).  Later she writes:
Trigger warnings are potentially lifesaving for people who have dealt with traumas like sexual assault, hate crimes or violence. Eliminating these advisories and zones on campus suggests that someone should have to listen to someone who questions their humanity or experience.
No links there, and no evidence to back it up.  The inflationary rhetoric ("potentially lifesaving") doesn't help, and is no substitute for evidence.  As she then admits: "There is not much research on the effectiveness of advisories, but some experts do recommend that professors at least alert students of the content if it could be triggering."  Let me repeat that: There is not much research on the effectiveness of advisories; "some experts" recommend them anyway, but some experts can always be found to recommend anything you like.

Nearly 30 percent of students in 2014 reported experiencing a psychological health issue that negatively influenced their academic performance. Sexual assault ― which can lead to PTSD, among other conditions ― is also a prevalent issue. Approximately one in five women and one in 16 men will be sexually assaulted while in college.
Research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness shows more than 60 percent of college students who dropped out did so because of a mental health issue, which includes cases like PTSD and trauma.
I've seen similar sloppy use of numbers in other posts about this matter.  Are trigger warnings needed by all those 30 percent of students?  Probably not.  "Psychological health issue" casts a very wide net. Sexual assault can "lead to PTSD" -- I don't doubt that, but how often does it do so, and how often will trigger warnings in class be "effective"?  How many of the "more than 60 percent of college students who dropped out because of a mental health issue" -- also a very wide net -- were actually affected by PTSD and trauma?  But 60 percent is a nice big number, very impressive if you don't care about anything but making an impression.  It's a very irresponsible piece of work, this article, and it's typical of the complaints and attacks I've been seeing about the U of Chicago today.

In the comments under John Scalzi's post, a pattern emerged: numerous people wrote about what they "thought" a safe space is, in their opinions.  (The same is true of "trigger warning."  Scalzi noticed what I had, that the U of Chicago letter was itself, effectively, a trigger warning, as are movie and television and other rating systems, according to the commonsense meaning of "trigger warning" these folks are working with.  I'm not sure, however, that they are the same thing.)  The trouble is that there is considerable disagreement about what a safe space (or a trigger warning) is or should be. As the therapist Walt Odets wrote (In the shadow of the epidemic: being HIV-negative in the age of AIDS [Duke UP, 1995]: 274f.):
In any well-run group, safety can only mean one thing: any expression of feelings or thoughts will be received and tolerated by the group, and an attempt will be made to honestly respond to it. This will be done without physical violence or undue emotional hurt to other members, and without abandonment of the group. This essential objective is most easily accomplished in a professionally facilitated therapy group, because the group leader will have the necessary skills to mediate and limit conflict to a safe and constructive level. When the idea of safety comes to mean, as it often does in poorly constructed therapy groups and many support groups, that members be polite and "non-judgmental" toward each other, then the prime therapeutic objectives are undermined. Interpersonal interaction -- as opposed to social form -- necessarily involves feelings and judgments about others, and unless they can be expressed and discussed truthfully, the group can provide neither insight nor the meaning that comes of bearing witness....
The function of a group is not to make members "feel better when they leave than when they came in," as one poorly supervised peer facilitator has routinely billed his weekly support group for San Francisco gay men. It is the function of a therapy group, like individual psychotherapy, to help people attain the insight that allows them to make themselves feel better.
As Odets's own complaint shows, though, his idea of safe space is not the only meaning in current use, even among professionals.  Whoever wrote the University of Chicago letter is evidently foggy about the meaning of the term, as of "trigger warning." When you factor in non-professionals, the sky is the limit.  (The same is true of other terms that have transitioned from jargon to mainstream discourse, like "microaggression.")  To me that's evidence that demands for trigger warnings and safe space tend to come from people who don't know what they're talking about.  It becomes pointless to argue about the "real" meaning of these terms when no one knows what they do mean, so one must look at what people think they mean by them, and what conditions and practices they are calling for.  The Huffington Post article, which is unfortunately typical of the critiques I've seen, indicates that there is some truth in the charge that advocates of "safe space" want to shut down intellectual freedom altogether (except for themselves of course).  They talk about "civility" (the word is in the U of Chicago letter, in fact) and "respect," but those qualities are conspicuously absent from their discourse.

But also from their opponents'.  As Scalzi tweeted (and quoted in his post), "The conservatives gloating about @uchicago's No' Safe Spaces' policy don't appear to think it will apply to them, too, the dear wee lads."  The reactions he got to that one from conservatives confirmed his point, though it was hardly news.  But that is one area where conservatives and non-conservatives stand together: Freedom of Speech for Me, But Not for Thee!

The HuffPost writer complains: "The problem with this interpretation of trigger warnings is that it presumes all participants have the same level of privilege."  "Privilege" is another of those wiggly, gaseous terms that gets misused a lot, I'm afraid.  I noticed when I first wrote about safe spaces that a lot of the discourse around them presumes levels of class privilege.  So, for instance, a young gay teacher-to-be denounced the word "gay" as "vulgar," and asserted that he wouldn't tolerate it in any class he taught.  Suppressing the "vulgar" means imposing a privileged, white middle-class standard of language.  Privilege isn't a simple linear scale of higher and lower, it's extremely complex and muddled: one can be privileged along one axis and de-privileged in another.  There's been a lot of criticism of the word "privilege" in some recent discussion, asserting that, say, working-poor whites in West Virginia don't have white privilege.  Of course they do, however much privilege they don't have.  But a college-educated person who presumes to lecture such people on their white privilege ignores his or her own privilege: privilege is always relative to your status and the status of the person you're dealing with.  If you want to communicate with and educate others, you will try to frame your message in such a way that they'll be able to hear it -- or to put it another way, speaking of white privilege to poor white trash sets off various triggers for them, and those who wave around "civility" and "respect" must be aware of and curb their own privilege first.