TIMSIT: Curtailing Intellectual Freedom
Use Your Words

Annabelle Timsit

Annabelle Timsit

Georgetown’s intellectual biodiversity is being challenged by what the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls the “rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism.” Often, the instrument of this type of censorship is the much debated “trigger warning.”

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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  1. Trigger warnings are factually not censorship. They are telling people something that is going to be said. They recognize people’s experiences and make conversations MORE inclusion. This is thoughtless and just straight up wrong.

  2. Not sure how letting people in an audience know about the potentially traumatic content of something – some of whom who may have lost loved ones to police violence – translates to “coddling” their “young minds”.

    This piece, and this entire column in fact, have a severe misunderstanding of the psychological and sociological research behind “trigger warnings”.

  3. What an uninformed article. Trigger warnings are not used to shut down debate on topics. They are used to notify their audience of particularly heavy topics so that people are aware that they are going to encounter content that might severely negatively affect them if they have a history with those topics. Students do not leave the room if simply because they want to — have you personally met someone who arbitrarily leaves a room under the pretext of having a trigger, or are you building up a straw man that’s easy to take down? If they leave the room, it is because they have decided that it is not worth it to submit themselves to a piece of media that could debilitate them. If and when they feel ready to engage with these issues once time passes and trauma begins to heal, they will come back to the room.

    People are not somehow “refusing” to talk about issues like anti-blackness and privilege by having trigger warnings for them. It is just the opposite. If there’s a trigger warning for a difficult topic, it literally means that what follows is a commentary on that difficult topic. You don’t have a trigger warning for sexual assault because you don’t want to talk about sexual assault. You have it because you want to talk about it but you don’t want anyone in the audience to become debilitated if they have trauma relating to sexual assault and are not ready just yet to hear your commentary. Please do your research on what trigger warnings actually are before writing an ignorant article.

    This isn’t something people just make up because it makes themselves feel good, or whatever it is that you think people do because they arbitrarily don’t feel like listening to something. Your entire commentary is honestly insulting and belittling — ironically, since you seem to think that having trigger warnings is belittling when it’s actually just giving people a heads up of content they are going to hear — to people who actually have experienced traumatic events that they might not want to relive in that specific moment.

    There are people who very much appreciate trigger warnings. If you aren’t triggered by anything, that’s fine and good, but please know you are not somehow a better person for advocating eliminating them for the rest of us just because you think it’s an attack on intellectual freedom that people are not forced to listen to something.

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