Recent data from a survey conducted by Gallup, Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute shows that over 54 percent of college students think that the climate on their campus prevents people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive. Meanwhile, 42 percent of U.S. adults think their freedom of speech is threatened.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education keeps track of colleges that have speech restrictions, giving each institution a green, yellow or red rating. To receive the worst rating, a college must have at least one policy “that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” Georgetown University has a red rating.
Interestingly enough, somewhere down the long list of recorded cases of free speech violation at Georgetown, we find our own paper, The Hoya, in an April 2000 complaint of ‘self-censorship’ of a conservative columnist.
Last week, I experienced an event that conflicts with how our community should approach the issue of trigger warnings. I attended the Mr. Georgetown pageant, where Mr. GUPride, Willem Miller (COL ’17), performed a spoken word poem.
Before the speech, a trigger warning was issued for queer violence, police brutality and racial violence. The monologue itself was interesting and relevant: He was lamenting the fate of the future children he would take into foster care, some of whom might be black, and worrying about their fate in the hands of the current criminal justice system, systemic racism and police violence.
I wondered about the purpose of this trigger warning. It is easy to think that a trigger warning is harmless, but it actually enables the coddling of young minds. Our institution must avoid supporting or promoting them. A system of higher education that prefaces uncomfortable topics or materials with the option for students to leave the room if they do not want to listen skews perceptions. It tells students what and how to think, rather than allowing them to reach their own conclusions.
This may seem like a campus culture issue, but school administrators in this country can be complicit in the tacit sponsorship of trigger warnings. In 2013, a task force of administrators, recent alumni, students and one faculty member at Oberlin College released a resource guide for faculty that included topics the task force deemed worthy of trigger warnings. These topics included classism and privilege. The guide was subsequently retracted in the face of faculty pushback but retains support from the student body.
Trigger warnings are a form of censorship that curtails intellectual freedom and damages mental health. The only way to deal with a problem is to face it. This is true for life’s ugliest topics: They will not go away simply because we refuse to talk about them.
Institutional support for this kind of censorship, whether explicit or tacit, facilitates a culture of intellectual sanitization that invades our student space. What was so shocking about the Mr. Georgetown pageant was that a crowd of smart, alert, sensitive and diverse students had to be given an “out” before hearing about a raw story about violence and discrimination that happens every day in this country.
It was, at the very least, reassuring to see that no one got up and left.
Annabelle Timsit is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Use Your Words appears every other Friday.
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