More college triggering

June 16, 2015 • 11:45 am

As reader Lenny wrote when he emailed me this link to an Economist article, “Trigger-unhapy: student safety has become a real threat to free speech on campus”, a piece about the spread of calls for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” at U.S. colleges:

I don’t think there is anything particularly insightful.  Relevant only because the issue has made it to the general business community through The Economist.​

I suppose Lenny’s right, but the article also contains some other chilling cases of censorship of which I wasn’t aware. Here’s one:

FOR an hour or two on a foggy morning last December, some students at the University of Iowa (UI) mistook one of their professors, Serhat Tanyolacar, for a fan of the Ku Klux Klan. Mr Tanyolacar had placed a canvas effigy based on Klan robes, screen-printed with news cuttings about racial violence, on the Pentacrest, the university’s historic heart. The effigy had a camera in its hood to record public reactions.

The reaction among some black students was to fear for their safety, and that is not surprising. What is more of a puzzle—for anyone outside American academia, at least—is that students and UI bosses continued denouncing Mr Tanyolacar for threatening campus safety even after the misunderstanding was cleared up. In vain did the Turkish-born academic explain that he is a “social-political artist”, using Klan imagery to provoke debate about racism. Under pressure from angry students, university chiefs issued two separate apologies. The first expressed regret that students had been exposed to a “deeply offensive” artwork, adding that there is no room for “divisive” speech at UI. The second apologised for taking too long to remove a display which had “terrorised” black students and locals, thereby failing to ensure that all students, faculty, staff and visitors felt “respected and safe”. An unhappy Mr Tanyolacar feels abandoned by the university. He left Iowa earlier this month, when his visiting fellowship came to an end, and has suspended his teaching career.

Here’s the triggering image:


The article adds this:

. . . Mr Tanyolacar’s troubles point to something new and alarming. A generation ago campus rows turned on what should be taught. Leftish students decried lessons about dead white men as acts of racist and sexist oppression. UI witnessed its own censorship battle, after a conservative student complained about gay sex scenes in a German film shown in class. But what Mr Tanyolacar was saying was not the problem: his work is explicitly anti-racist. His problem turned on who now has the authority to declare his art harmful, regardless of his intent.

And right there you have the problem: if we are to censor “hate speech,” who is the arbiter of what constitutes hate?

The only problem with this artwork is that it was erected without permission. But seriously, look at it! It’s the epitome of what should inspire dialogue, along the lines of Andres Serrano’s famous “Piss Christ” (a crucifix immersed in a beaker of the artist’s urine). Now I accept that black students might have felt uneasy at seeing that, but look at the headlines about racial violence that bedeck the figure. It’s pretty clear that this is not a racist image. What bothers me most about this is the college’s subsequent insistence that it has no truck with “divisive speech.” What speech that has promoted social progress, or political or religious discussion, isn’t divisive? Is all speech at the University of Iowa to be harmonious, loving, and accommodating—designed to make students feel “safe”?

These repeated calls for assurance of “safety” irritate me. It’s as if students want to walk through college swaddled in cotton and surrounded by armed guards who will ensure that their tender feelings remain unbruised. Where did this come from? “Safety” should refer to physical safety, not lack of offense, and “respect” should be afforded to people, not their ideas. Let us hope that this tide of snowflakery will melt soon—but I’m not holding my breath.

h/t: Lenny

61 thoughts on “More college triggering

  1. It’s much worse than censoring hate speech as it appears that you also must censor hate speech about hate speech! Yikes, maybe this very post needs censoring. I defy them to censor me bec……CENSORED!

    1. This issue reminds me of a case I read about years ago. A man who worked as a janitor at Notre Dame University was reading a book on his lunch break about how Notre Dame had been instrumental in fighting against the Klu Klux Klan during the 20’s. On the cover the word “Klan” was mentioned and there were photos from the era.

      Several of his fellow workers (black) asked about the book and he explained what it was about. Apparently they didn’t care and went to the authorities. IIRC he was told that the book was forbidden and he was now on suspension. The facts didn’t matter: it was still hurtful and created a damaging atmosphere.

      1. The same thing happened to a college student a few years back; he was reading a book about fighting racism which mentioned some racist group on the cover, and he almost got expelled from his University for it over complaints it was racist. I believe FIRE has the details on that one; they defended him when the University threatened to expel him.

  2. I think it looks less like a KKK figure and more like Dumbledore. Oh wait, that would be divisive also, potentially offending to members of the Slytherin fraternity…

    1. JK Rowling managed the situation – she made a Slytherin the next headmaster to make up for it. The fact it suited the story arc was entirely irrelevant.

      If this work (the Klan robes) had been placed in an upmarket gallery, I suspect it would have been lauded. It would also be a great piece to use to start discussion about racism.

      Diana (comment #1) is spot on, and shows how ridiculous it’s become.

    1. Sorry but duck decoys can cause frustration to amorous ducks and provoke violent reactions from duck hunters. We need to treat our duck decoys with the same respect as natural ducks. Your intolerance cannot be tolerated. /sarcasm

    2. Duck decoys are terrorizing for ducks. You clearly lack sensitivity. There are duck lovers who read this column, and if any of them are also university students, they may have been shocked by such confrontational language. When mentioning such frightening topics, please remember to provide a Trigger Warning, and a link to a picture of a kitten to help heal those who read it by accident.

      1. “a link to a picture of a kitten”

        Kittens grow into cats, which do cruel and sadistic things to mice and other small animals. This is extremely frightening and triggering to any person who has empathy with small prey animals. Please do not advocate displaying pictures of juvenile carnivores in places where people of sensitivity might see them.

        Additionally, the word ‘trigger’ conjures up images of guns and massacres. I am finding it necessary to breathe deeply and concentrate on something non-threatening such as.. lettuce. Lettuce does not threaten anything.


        1. In U.S. Southern culinary culture there is a dish called “killed lettuce.” (Chopped lettuce fried in bacon drippings.) It wouldn’t do for tender collegiate aesthetic sensibilities to have to see that on a menu.

  3. The idea that satirizing a problematic point of view is the same as perpetuating it, is a very puzzling one for me (we’ve seen it, in it’s purest form, in the Cancel Colbert campaign a while back).

    My theory is that this idea stems from people, who are highly committed to certain issues, being very uneasy about the debate getting infused with humour, which suggests making light of the problem.

    That’s the charitable interpretation, at least. A less charitable one would be that many people highly committed to certain issues are humourless dogmatists (a tautology) who are rightly afraid of satire.

    1. I tend towards the “humourless dogmatist” explanation, and with them I’m not sure it’s even a tautology – the extra emphasis is realistic.

    2. Another possibility is that the Concerned Censors see the ‘victims’ as both literal-minded and simple-minded. They won’t be able to tell the difference between, say, satire of racism and actual racism. So the Censors, like mommies watching over toddlers, make sure the little ones are not exposed to ideas which are Too Hard for them.

      I’ll also add another possibility: the Censors are so terrified of problematic points of view that they see evil intent in everything. The “oh, I’m just joking” follow-up to what was damn sure intended to be an insult is, after all, a real thing. Or they may think allowing honest satire invites the fake kind.

      I don’t know. Possibly a toxic mixture of all of them, depending.

      1. People concerned with security have no sense of humor. Try to joke with a TSA agent, especially about anything security-related, and you’ll be “diverted” to Gitmo. Censors have the exact same mentality.


        1. Nor was the flight crew of an ATR-72 turboprop happy when I mentioned I brought super glue for the door.

  4. Well, the censorship of this kind of expression and the censure of those doing the expression is of course not acceptable.

    But…these two examples of art (the effigy and “Piss Christ”) bring to mind what Pinker wrote about this kind of art in The Blank Slate:

    “….the political messages of most postmodern pieces are utterly banal, like ‘racism is bad.’ But they are stated so obliquely that viewers are made to feel morally [or aesthetically -MB] superior for being able to figure them out.”

  5. You go to school at the age of twelve or thirteen; and for the next four or five years you are not engaged so much in acquiring of knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours that you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not for knowledge so much as arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual posture, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the habit of working our what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness. Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge.

    This is from a nineteen-century Eton master. I first read it when I was in college, and I’ve never seen anything that state so well what the purpose of higher, especially Liberal Arts, education. I know personally that not all of today’s college age youth are censorious. I can’t help but think, though, that many schools (both the ones that prepare students for college and colleges themselves) are really letting their students down. Given that they are not being taught criticism, one can only assume they are learning to respect approved authority.



    1. I need to be warned if you’re going to make a Trigger Warning. I need to be in the right frame of mind to prepare for the idea of one, as they irritate me. You are not considering my needs at all.

      1. It’s like when I ask a student who has interrupted me several times: “Could you give me advance notice when you are going to interrupt me?”

    2. I’m pretty sure making fun of trigger warnings will make students in favor of them feel “marginalized” — thus requiring a [Trigger Warning] of its own.

      These campuses are on the cusp of infinite regress — it’s trigger-warnings-all-the-way-down.

    3. OMG. There needs to be a trigger warning for all those trigger warnings. I think I’m going to have a seizure.

  7. How do you argue your case with people who see logic, facts and calm, rational deliberation as the work of the Devil?

  8. Any institution where feels trump facts should rightly be called anti-intellectual. This epithet is usually applied to religious/conservative apparati but it looks like the most recent strain of anti-intellectualism is the liberal college student.

  9. Not that it makes this example of the outrage industry any less humorless, attempting to provoke debate about racism in Iowa is about as likely as debating water in the desert.

    1. I forget what the topic was in a Youtube video (either featuring Hitch or Maureen Dowd) the other night, but someone said, “It’s like two bald men arguing over a comb.”

      1. I like that. In the wide world of no diversity in Iowa, where the white population is almost all followed by Hispanic and finally African American at around 3%, a racial discussion is as handy as a screen door in a submarine.

  10. According to The Economist article, the doctoral student who organized the campus protest said this: “I don’t understand why a non-black person can appropriate black people’s pain to teach a lesson about racism.”

    Apparently you can become a PhD candidate at Iowa without ever being exposed to the concept reductio ad absurdum — also without ever being exposed to Santayana’s aphorism that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

      1. Presumably to the same extent that a historian-of-color would be foreclosed from addressing the countless painful episodes in European history.

  11. I can see where black students who got up with the KKK effigy would have been startled. Unless some context is missing from the Economist article, however, I cannot see how they could have been put in any rational fear for their corporeal safety.

    What are these universities going to do when white students start complaining that they are put in fear for their safety when they see black students on campus, or when black students claim this about whites — or men about women, or women about men?

    Certainly, such complaints would have more legitimacy: students are at a much greater risk of physical harm from each other than they are either from papier-mâché, or from tomorrow’s papier-mâché, campus newspapers.

  12. Would an effigy of a male holding up his baggy trousers with one hand, with sticky notes quoting vile rap lyrics all over the trousers, constitute an offense to ones delicate sensibilities, as opposed to, say, an effigy of Tony Bennett similar bedecked with lyrics to pop standards?

  13. Idiots misunderstanding art is hardly new. Allowing said idiots to decide what art is to be displayed in public isn’t new either unfortunately. Free speech and art have always had to fight.

  14. I really don’t think actual offence is what’s inspiring this reaction, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the parties who you might expect to be most offended by this weren’t the ones complaining. It seems more like a kind of signalling arms-race between more-politically-correct-than-thou students – a way for them to one-up their peers and prove their righteousness. Then their peers respond, and so on and so forth..

  15. Students who have this strong aversion to having their ideas challenged, coupled with an expectation that they can demand that authority figures protect them from contrary ideas, did not develop these sensibilities in a vacuum. I have to ask, what were the formative years of these students like? Are their parents silently embarrassed about this behavior, or are they encouraging the snowflakery?

    1. Is it possibly, in part, related to this trend of the students/parents being the “customers,” and the profs being the “service providers”? “Customer satisfaction” and all that? The fatuous “The Customer Is Always Right”?

  16. Message to students (and all and sundry): if this triggers you, don’t visit Spain during Semana Santa (holy week; Easter). The KKK’s robes are rip-offs of a much older traditional penitent Catholic robe that many Spaniards wear during the week. You see ’em all over the place. Often quite colorful, though, as opposed to the Klan’s basic white.

    The nerve of those Spaniards, not eliminating their thousand-year tradition when they know how it must offend Americans due to events from 150 years ago!

  17. I must live a sheltered life – I didn’t even make the connection to the Klan until it was explained. (Yes, I’ve seen photos of the sheet things, but …)

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