The Western Stories Archives


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Sentilles Part II. Rights Back to Top. Awards Back to Top. Additional Information Back to Top. Publicity material Bk Cover Image Full. Also Viewed. Critique of Black Reason. The Economization of Life. White Innocence. The Fernando Coronil Reader. The Intimacies of Four Continents. On Decoloniality. The Invention of Capitalism.

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Colonial Lives of Property. Sylvia Wynter. Second World, Second Sex. Table of Contents Back to Top. Sentilles Part II. Rights Back to Top. Awards Back to Top. Additional Information Back to Top. Publicity material Bk Cover Image Full. Also Viewed. Critique of Black Reason. The Economization of Life. White Innocence. The Fernando Coronil Reader. The Intimacies of Four Continents. On Decoloniality. The Invention of Capitalism. Colonial Lives of Property. Sylvia Wynter. The use of trigger warnings on campus appears to have followed a similar trajectory; seemingly overnight, students at universities across the country have begun demanding that their professors issue warnings before covering material that might evoke a negative emotional response.

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In , a task force composed of administrators, students, recent alumni, and one faculty member at Oberlin College, in Ohio, released an online resource guide for faculty subsequently retracted in the face of faculty pushback that included a list of topics warranting trigger warnings. These topics included classism and privilege, among many others.

Rather, trigger warnings are sometimes demanded for a long list of ideas and attitudes that some students find politically offensive, in the name of preventing other students from being harmed. Once you find something hateful, it is easy to argue that exposure to the hateful thing could traumatize some other people. You believe that you know how others will react, and that their reaction could be devastating.

Preventing that devastation becomes a moral obligation for the whole community. Some students, she wrote, have pressured their professors to avoid teaching the subject in order to protect themselves and their classmates from potential distress.


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However, there is a deeper problem with trigger warnings. According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia.

If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

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But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy. You might start by asking the woman to merely look at an elevator from a distance—standing in a building lobby, perhaps—until her apprehension begins to subside. This reduction in fear during exposure is called habituation. Then, on subsequent days, you might ask her to get closer, and on later days to push the call button, and eventually to step in and go up one floor. This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy.

Students who call for trigger warnings may be correct that some of their peers are harboring memories of trauma that could be reactivated by course readings. But they are wrong to try to prevent such reactivations. Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation. Classroom discussions are safe places to be exposed to incidental reminders of trauma such as the word violate. A discussion of violence is unlikely to be followed by actual violence, so it is a good way to help students change the associations that are causing them discomfort.

The expansive use of trigger warnings may also foster unhealthy mental habits in the vastly larger group of students who do not suffer from PTSD or other anxiety disorders. People acquire their fears not just from their own past experiences, but from social learning as well.


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If everyone around you acts as though something is dangerous—elevators, certain neighborhoods, novels depicting racism—then you are at risk of acquiring that fear too. Its purpose is to get students to focus on them and then relabel the people who have made such remarks as aggressors. The term microaggression originated in the s and referred to subtle, often unconscious racist affronts. The definition has expanded in recent years to include anything that can be perceived as discriminatory on virtually any basis.

For example, in , a student group at UCLA staged a sit-in during a class taught by Val Rust, an education professor. Although Rust was not explicitly named, the group quite clearly criticized his teaching as microaggressive. Lowercasing the capital I was an insult to the student and her ideology, the group claimed.

Even joking about microaggressions can be seen as an aggression, warranting punishment. Last fall, Omar Mahmood, a student at the University of Michigan, wrote a satirical column for a conservative student publication, The Michigan Review , poking fun at what he saw as a campus tendency to perceive microaggressions in just about anything. Mahmood was also employed at the campus newspaper, The Michigan Daily. In March, the student government at Ithaca College, in upstate New York, went so far as to propose the creation of an anonymous microaggression-reporting system.

Surely people make subtle or thinly veiled racist or sexist remarks on college campuses, and it is right for students to raise questions and initiate discussions about such cases. But the increased focus on microaggressions coupled with the endorsement of emotional reasoning is a formula for a constant state of outrage, even toward well-meaning speakers trying to engage in genuine discussion. What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce?

Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt? Catastrophizing rhetoric about physical danger is employed by campus administrators more commonly than you might think—sometimes, it seems, with cynical ends in mind. Schmidt had filed a grievance against the school about two months earlier after being passed over for a sabbatical.

The quote was interpreted as a threat by a campus administrator, who received a notification after Schmidt posted the picture; it had been sent, automatically, to a whole group of contacts. According to Schmidt, a Bergen security official present at a subsequent meeting between administrators and Schmidt thought the word fire could refer to AKs. The president interpreted the collage as a threat against his life.

It should be no surprise that students are exhibiting similar sensitivity. At the University of Central Florida in , for example, Hyung-il Jung, an accounting instructor, was suspended after a student reported that Jung had made a threatening comment during a review session. All of these actions teach a common lesson: smart people do, in fact, overreact to innocuous speech, make mountains out of molehills, and seek punishment for anyone whose words make anyone else feel uncomfortable.

According to data compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, since , at least campaigns have been launched at U. Consider two of the most prominent disinvitation targets of former U. Rice was the first black female secretary of state; Lagarde was the first woman to become finance minister of a G8 country and the first female head of the IMF. Both speakers could have been seen as highly successful role models for female students, and Rice for minority students as well.

But the critics, in effect, discounted any possibility of something positive coming from those speeches. If students graduate believing that they can learn nothing from people they dislike or from those with whom they disagree, we will have done them a great intellectual disservice. Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students.

They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward.

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And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.

Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control. One of the great truths taught by Buddhism and Stoicism, Hinduism, and many other traditions is that you can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to your desires.

But you can master your desires and habits of thought. This, of course, is the goal of cognitive behavioral therapy. With this in mind, here are some steps that might help reverse the tide of bad thinking on campus.

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The biggest single step in the right direction does not involve faculty or university administrators, but rather the federal government, which should release universities from their fear of unreasonable investigation and sanctions by the Department of Education. Monroe County Board of Education. Universities themselves should try to raise consciousness about the need to balance freedom of speech with the need to make all students feel welcome. Talking openly about such conflicting but important values is just the sort of challenging exercise that any diverse but tolerant community must learn to do.

Restrictive speech codes should be abandoned.

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Universities should also officially and strongly discourage trigger warnings. Finally, universities should rethink the skills and values they most want to impart to their incoming students. At present, many freshman-orientation programs try to raise student sensitivity to a nearly impossible level.

Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal, especially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds. But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses. Why not teach incoming students how to practice cognitive behavioral therapy? Given high and rising rates of mental illness, this simple step would be among the most humane and supportive things a university could do. The cost and time commitment could be kept low: a few group training sessions could be supplemented by Web sites or apps.

But the outcome could pay dividends in many ways. For example, a shared vocabulary about reasoning, common distortions, and the appropriate use of evidence to draw conclusions would facilitate critical thinking and real debate. A greater commitment to formal, public debate on campus—and to the assembly of a more politically diverse faculty—would further serve that goal. We believe that this is still—and will always be—the best attitude for American universities. Faculty, administrators, students, and the federal government all have a role to play in restoring universities to their historic mission.

A partial list from Robert L. Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. I seem to fail at a lot of things.

Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. What if? Emotional reasoning.

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