Guarding The Ivory Tower
For pre-millenials, odd is the rise of the triggered student. Recently evolved in classrooms across America, this educational species requires protection from any possibly disturbing experience. Judith Shulevitz, in discussing a debate at Brown University wherein the notion of ‘rape culture’ was in question, reports that students created a safe space for “people who might find comments ‘troubling’ or ‘triggering,’ a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”
One struggles to imagine that this is not satire. Shulevitz rightly points out that the origins of this phenomenon are certainly valid: providing safe places for survivors of rape or creating gatherings for people who have been the target of vitriol and violence have often been necessary for healing. This is, after all, one of the most essential components of therapy itself. But in recent events, we have seen the move from designating safe places to designating all places dangerous, thus collapsing the distinction between victim and perpetrator, act and representation, child and adult. Within this new mentality, the entire public and private realm transmogrifies into one of surveillance and fear. One student who helped create the safe space, and who is a rape survivor, reported the following after attending the debate: “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.” Any survivor of such a horror is due a great amount of care and understanding, but the idea that beliefs themselves need protection is a new entity altogether, and a worrisome one.
Hannah Arendt, in her neo-Aristotelian way, was very fond of the notion that we cannot begin to think if we cannot make distinctions. This seems to be a thought worth thinking these days. Certainly, the ability to create private spaces or even protest opposing views remains as necessary as ever, and Arendt had much to say about the need for both. No less, direct abuse on the part of the powerful requires resistance, both individual and institutional. But when the demand is now to protect “my dearly and closely held beliefs,” such distinctions are collapsed, and we move from notions of disagreement or even resistance to abuse to designating all disturbing notions as abusive. College purports to function, in part, as a place where students can go not simply to train for a job, but to broaden their minds and encounter ideas that are difficult, challenging, and hopefully unsettling. The idea now, it seems, is that students ought not be forced to confront any conception that might cause psychic damage. Colleges across the country are thus employing trigger warnings and student-professor relationship bans, while professors are becoming paranoid in and outside of the class, wondering if some misbegotten word will drag the entirety of the administration down on them. Laura Kipnis, in a recent piece that is wry, and certainly disturbing, notes that in new guidelines sent out to faculty “we were warned in two separate places that inappropriate humor violates university policy.” She then rightly notes that appropriate humor is itself something of an oxymoron, never mind the ironic fact that higher education is precisely the place where radical ideas go to flourish.
And so it is no aberration that Kipnis’s piece drew a protest of thirty or so students who demanded, symbolic mattress in hands, that the Northwestern professor be condemned by her university administrators. Apparently, Catherine Mackinnon’s provocative though reductive argument that pornography is indistinct from the act of rape and oppression is newly alive in reactions to Kipnis’s piece, which has itself been called an act of rape in some corners of social media.
One is reminded here of bomb shelters in the 50’s, or the rise of ‘panic rooms’ in the late eighties, safe rooms within the estates of the wealthy, paranoid about the unwashed masses coming to rape, pillage, and smudge. But this new iteration of college student is demanding an inverted ‘panic room’: rather than a safe retreat, the campus itself is the ‘panic room’. The paranoia about the external, such as a nuclear bomb or a lower class, now monitors the internal–all possible interactions are potential triggers for retraumatization. Michel Foucault famously argued that Bentham’s panoptic prison design could be thought of as a model for how controlling subjects within a political body works: with a guard tower in the center and cells outside, the prisoners can’t see through the guards’ observation windows, though the guards can see them; as such, the prisoners never know when the guards are present and thus assume that they always are. As such, the prisoners internalize the guards and begin to guard themselves, which was the clever efficiency of Bentham’s design. Foucault then generalized this–it is the very way that modern societies, he argued, get their subjects to more or less follow the rules on a massive basis without needing guards at every corner. But it may be time to reverse Foucault here: if we are now always watching to see if our words or deeds are psychically damaging, it’s the prisoners who are monitoring the guards. As Freud might have it, the superego protectively admonishes other egos for their moral failures.
But who are these new academic entities? Is it not the case that what we’re talking about isn’t #allstudents, but a certain neoliberal subject, a subject, as Philip Mirowski puts it, for whom “education is a consumer good, not a life-transforming experience.” In other words, while it is true that academia is now increasingly worried about how it speaks to its students, it does not follow that all students share the same worry, or social position.
Indeed, recent research has shown an interesting trend: back in the 70’s, the middle and upper classes performed about equally in school. The lower classes, as usual, were left behind. But as the glorious eighties moved on, so did the top from middle, and now we see just as much of a performative distinction between the wealthy and the middle as we do between the middle and the bottom. What accounts for this difference? Now that college educations are absolutely essential for economic success, the wealthy have begun to invest heavily in their childrens’ educations. As Professor Sean Reardon points out, “High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.” This means not only SAT prep classes, but moral trips to help save the poor in depressed South America, enriching journeys to cultural Europe, anxious shuttling of their progeny to invigorating soccer matches, and the like. At the same time, these kids are constantly monitored by their parents–rarely left alone and always occupied with enriching experiences, their path to future success is paved with a deep level of care and anxiety that only modern capitalism can demand. But just as we saw with white feminism in the past, when we talk about these kids, we must ask: whose kids? The rise of the corporate college has been going on for decades now, along with the rise of average college debt. Meanwhile, college graduation rates have been less than stellar, save for the wealthy students who tend to graduate in relatively high numbers. And no wonder: they’ve been prepped their whole lives for this, an experience that is now in some sense their birthright. As such we can see the triggered college student mirrored in the generally white and wealthy elite private school student who is now trained in ‘diversity’, often led by people of color in exploring their feelings around issues of race, gender, and class. Such students learn to think critically, a supposedly key 21st-century skill, about identity, even when that identity leads them to an uncomfortable awareness of that oh-so-pejorative label, ‘privileged’: “It’s just a very strong word to use. . . . I don’t want to be identified with that just because my parents can afford things. I think it has a negative connotation.” Certainly, this one is on to something.
And so, as DuBois, Fanon, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and every great critic of privilege has thus pointed out, simply being aware of a situation does nothing to change it. Thus one of the leaders of these privileged awareness sessions drives us to the safety of this well-guarded cul-de-sac: “Society doesn’t value each of these identities equally. . . . It’s no one’s fault. But you should be aware of it.” How long ago was it that King told us that it is the white liberal who is the most retrograde force, the one who says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” Certainly, awareness is good, but it’s cruel when it does nothing to change the very structures that led to the need for it in the first place.
Which is why it’s important to keep in mind that these trigger warnings aren’t taking place just anywhere. They occur or have occurred primarily at our elite colleges, at Oberlin or at Rutgers, and they reflect all too well the sense in which critical awareness of issues has become less to do with changing the the very conditions that lead to inequality than with aiding those who have been raised to expect protection. In a very important post, political scientist Corey Robin makes the point that this entire discussion of how students are coddled is really itself an indication of which classes, as it were, get to speak: “First, the way that elite institutions dominate our media discussions really skews how the public, particularly that portion of the public that is not in college right now, sees higher education. There is a war being fought on college campuses, but it’s not about trigger warnings or safe spaces; it’s about whether non-elite students will be able to get any kind of liberal arts education at all—forget Shakespeare v. Morrison; I’m talking essays versus multiple choice tests, philosophy versus accounting—from mostly precarious professors who are themselves struggling to make ends meet.”
It’s not so much that academia has become a place of paranoia where ‘our’ students are infantilized. Or, rather, the student who has been in jail, or the student who is just out of the military, or the student who is working nights, is generally not going to these colleges, nor are the colleges going to them.
Psychoanalysis figured out long ago that one need not experience an actual event to be traumatized deeply by the idea of it, but as Judith Butler points out, we must always ask the Kantian question of what the social, economic, cultural, and political conditions are that allow one form of speech to become normalized. How is it that a certain class of students who have been victimized now demands that their very ideas be protected, or at least that their classes are structured to warn them of any possible disturbance? How is it that the privileged are learning not only about the less fortunate, but also how to be protected from their very privilege? Such students must have come to understand at some point that their ideas and feelings are precious and deeply important, and colleges must have also learned this as well, if we are to judge by their new rules of conduct. Or, at least some colleges, and if a college education is now just another product, colleges of this caliber surely cannot afford to lose customers of that caliber. A first class education requires first class service, and so the students who order trigger warnings and protection of their deeply held beliefs also demand an untroubling experience, and their new servants, administrators and professors alike, obviously must oblige. This is, after all, America, and in America, the customer is always right, whatever is on the syllabus today.