A few months ago a friend returned from the Greek island Lesbos, where he had volunteered in the refugee rescue effort. The stories he told were both heart-rending and heartening – of parents adrift with their children in deflating dinghies, and the close friendships made between Sunnis and Shiites at the refugee camp.

It’s instructive to contrast such stories of offshore suffering with Anglophile “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and the popularization of the clinical terms “psychopath” and “post traumatic stress syndrome.”

You may have heard of university “trigger warnings.” These are warnings attached to teaching materials that might trigger a previous trauma in a student.

Todd Pettigrew, Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University, recognizes the absurdity involved in flagging course content.

“In my own teaching I present material that references or depicts agonizing murders, unspeakable torture, adultery, incest, psychological abuse of women, mental illness, and suicide. And that’s just my Shakespeare course. In fact, that’s just Hamlet,” Pettigrew wrote in a 2014 article for Macleans.

Material that might trouble any given student could range from a battlefield photograph to a line from Mark Twain to a fragment of slave song. It goes without saying that human history is a blood-soaked affair; even first-year textbooks in psychology have potentially triggering content. (Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, anyone?)

A jaw-dropping 2015 article in The New York Times indicates how far down the rabbit hole some American ivory towers have collapsed. When Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island arranged for two female academics – a feminist and a libertarian – to debate campus sexual assault, campus volunteers began constructing a “safe space” for anyone who found the presented material too upsetting.

“Think of safe spaces as the live-action version of better-known trigger warnings,” writes New York Times contributor Judith Shulevitz. She describes the form it took at Brown University: “The room was equipped with cookies, colouring 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.”

It sounds a Portlandia sketch running amok in the real world, but there’s nothing funny about it. There’s a significant risk of academic chill when students are shielded from the free exchange of ideas – the very foundation of academic study and advancement.

A related phenomenon is the overuse of “post-tramautic stress syndrome” in therapeutic circles and beyond to describe the aftereffects of any past grievance or hurt. Like any inflated currency, PTSD is losing its spending power through expansion of its supply. The same applies for other clinical terms, such as “psychopath.”

The recovery forum Psychopath Free has a telling comment from a poster advising newbies: “So when you feel those things after a relationship, does it really matter if your ex was a psychopath, a sociopath, a narcissist, or a garden-variety jerk? The label doesn’t make your feelings any more or less valid. Your feelings are absolutes.”

“Yes, it does matter,” insists the surname-free creator of The Culture of False Oppression blog. “Psychopathy is a personality disorder. Being a jerk is a behavioural problem….It matters even more in terms of discussing your story on forums based on psychopathy, where the constant use of the word psychopath is encouraged,” Maria writes.

The quote from Psychopath Free betrays the mindset behind trigger warnings, safe spaces, microaggressions, and other head-in-the-sand memes: feelings are literal absolutes. In contrast, clinical terminology, scientific methodology, due process, free speech, and other Enlightenment-era ideas are relative and provisional.

Yet in spite of the impact of trigger-mad trends from south of the border, Canadian academe has put up some resistance to the cult of victimization in higher learning.
In 2015 The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) released this statement: “Classrooms cannot be risk free zones – it is not only a right, but an essential component of academic freedom for instructors to teach…. When institutions require or suggest that academic staff use trigger warnings, they are interfering with academic freedom to choose and use course materials and teaching methods. Trigger warnings are inimical to the academic enterprise because they encourage censorship, and the inappropriate surveillance of the classroom.”

The Vancouver Courier, May 5


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