Columbia Students Lay Siege to Themselves

Psychological triggers are real. People who have endured assaults or abuse may be highly sensitized to external reminders of that trauma, and images, words or even sounds or smells can land like a blow on the psyches of certain victims. It's a phenomenon related to PTSD, and it is fairly rare.

And it is deeply offensive, says Tom McDonald, to "trivialize the real struggles of those who suffer from psychological problems" by calling everything that startles or alarms us a "trigger," and to demand that others shield us from exposure to these disturbances.  Yet the "trigger" has become a more and more popular concept, especially in academic circles -- and it seems to be gaining more clout even as its definition becomes more nebulous.

In the most recent of a string of stories about triggers in the university, members of something called the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board at Columbia wrote a "more in sorrow than in anger" essay in the student newspaper, calling on teachers to change the way they teach, or even to eliminate certain great works, in the name of inclusion and safety:

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

As Tom McDonald points out,

They are saying that race and class are themselves implicitly traumatic and need to be approached as one would a true mental illness. They’re saying that being non-white or poor is a kind of disability that requires special accommodations. Am I the only person who sees that as grossly offensive?

The casual appropriation of a serious medical diagnosis is repulsive enough, but what especially caught my eye in the Columbia piece is the assumption that safety trumps every other good

The MAAB, an extension of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, is an advocacy group dedicated to ensuring that Columbia’s campus is welcoming and safe for students of all backgrounds. This year, we explored possible interventions in Core classrooms, where transgressions concerning student identities are common.

We can all agree that bodily safety in the dorms is important, but how about intellectual safety in the classroom? Must all other goods be sacrificed on the altar of safety? Is safety even desireable?

Let me translate the Columbia article for you: we don't want to hear anything that we don't already know. We don't want to know anything that we haven't already heard. We don't want, at any costs, to be made to think, because we can't think hard and feel safe at the same time.

And they're right: great literature isn't safe. Robust conversation isn't safe. Rigorous intellectual pursuits can bring you to all kinds of alarming places. And this is a good thing. 

A few years ago, the New York Times ran a piece called "Can a Playground Be Too Safe?" making the case that play structures that make it impossible for kids to fall, bump, or chafe their precious hides are not only boring, they're actually bad for kids, who have a developmental need to encounter small amounts of uncertainty, unpredictability, and plain old danger. 

Even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries — and the evidence for that is debatable — the critics say that these playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone.

Children do get hurt when their play areas aren't thoroughly childproofed, but it turns out that getting hurt when they're younger is actually good for them in the long run: figuring out what they can and cannot handle makes them stronger, braver, and smarter.

[F]alls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

So here's what I say to the Columbia students clutching their carefully cultivated pearls as they face down the hot breath of those terrible, wild gods: you're damn right it's not safe. You're not in control here, not on this playground. You may find yourself climbing too high and too fast, and you may reach out for that rung on the monkey bars only to find that you're grabbing thin air, and down you will plummet, onto the hot asphalt, or maybe further, down into the underworld, where dark Hades glowers over the fluttering dead. 

So what? Did you pay the university tens of thousands of dollars to install you in a sorority house and stroke your hand and tell you you're smart? Why would you do that?  Didn't you come there to learn? How can you learn, if you won't let anything in?

Here's another image from that dreaded Western canon: when an army wants to desolate a city, it puts it under siege. Nothing goes in, nothing comes out. Without launching any violent attacks, without shedding a single drop of blood, without making any breeches in the wall, the invaders simply sit and wait. And it works. The city inside the walls shrinks, shrivels, starves, and dies.

This is what you're doing to yourself. You're laying siege to your own identity. It's safe! No arrows will fly. You'll be safe and undisturbed. And then you will die.