The Misfits of Sensitivity

There are rising movements of student activism that discourages free opinions because it could be offensive.

I recently shared a funny video on Facebook about a kid who sings about flirting with someone. I typed, “this girl is way cooler than me,” as the caption. A couple of minutes later, someone mentioned that the kid in the video was a boy. I replied with, “What about the hairpin then?” Someone then sends me a text explaining to me about how I shouldn’t have asked because hairpins aren’t just for girls. I could have explained to them that hairpins are marketed to females, and mostly females wore them. Sure, males can wear hairpins, but it should be understandable why I would think the kid was female. So I apologized and moved on, only to tilt my head back in surprise. An ordinary afternoon of fun became a lecture.

Anyone who is active in Facebook or Twitter would see that their feed in 2015 and 2016 was highlighted by the presidential election between Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. There was another current, however; a river flowing right underneath the ocean. It started before the 21st century but has recently become popular in North America and continues to spread further over time. The Atlantic calls it, “The Coddling of the American Mind”. The New Yorker deems it, “The Big Uneasy”. It asks everyone to be politically correct, demands professors to put trigger warnings across their syllabus, and requests schools to make safe-spaces. Is it righteous to its cause?

In 2014, several university student unions requested the school’s board members to officially implement “trigger warnings” before lectures. Trigger warnings are intended to warn students of “triggering” materials, or materials that have the potential to trigger an unwanted or traumatic memory and response. This allegedly arose after a student suffered a panic attack after watching a rape scene in class. Such warnings are sometimes beneficial to the well-being and growth of students, but its implementation has escalated quickly in recent times. Jeannie Suk once wrote in The New Yorker that some students pressured professors to avoid teaching rape law in a criminal law class. It’s like a person who wants to be a swimmer but won’t hold their breath after watching a guy drown in a movie.

Is a pre-emptive warning important for the wellbeing of students? Seeing the number of teenage suicides in Australia supports this. The 2015 Orygen report states the young Australian suicide rate is the highest in 10 years. The mental health of millennials’ is a dangerous problem right now, thus any measures to prevent or to heal are brought to the table, but trigger warnings might not be the right answer. I spoke to my former lecturer, Rachel Wilson, who discourages censorship in academic spaces. “I’ve thought about this in detail. […] My main perspective is worrying about an intellectual dumbing down of university space. The university is one of the only spaces we have left, culturally, to explore and unpack difficult materials. The world is made up of difficult circumstances, and if we’re constantly are having to apologize that, then it makes having those conversations very, very difficult.”

Wilson was particularly concerned for academics like herself. Giving warnings before a lecture was usually a choice, a strategy to teach. But now it is an obligation. “I do talk to students at certain times on certain contexts about the nature of this kind of material, and it is a fantastic topic to be having a conversation about. But I worry as an academic there would be an administrative that I and other lecturers would have to put in trigger warning that would actually result in a form of self-censorship,” she explained. Rather than engaging students in meaningful conversation, teachers would hold the materials out of fear of backlash.

It seems to me that academics welcome arguments when a student brought it to their attention. Resolving an issue through conversation is refreshing and challenging. The problem is when students feel that they are obligated to find support in social media. In the digital world, words travel in the simple click of a “share” button, and there is power in the number of shares. More often than not, only one side of the story gained popularity and the other side of the story wouldn’t be given a chance. Like Black Mirror’s, “Hated in the Nation”, trending hashtags literally kills people.

For students that felt attacked or denied, a safe-space can become a place for refuge. Filled with “coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh… and a video of frolicking puppies” Kathryn Byron explained that the safe-space is a place safe from “troubling” or “triggering” comments, where people won’t have to worry about judgment or differing opinions. Unfortunately, as inclusive at they believe the place to be, safe spaces only promote exclusivity. Judith Shulevitz wrote in response to Byron in The New York Times “Once you designated some place as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe". People with diverse opinions are not welcome. Safe spaces, Trigger warnings, and everything ‘aggressive’ has created social justice warriors, that not only force their opinion on others, but also condemns opinions that aren’t theirs. They gain power from the internet, where they can be anonymous anytime they want.

Teachers, parents and students, all are entitled to express their opinion. However contrast that idea is to another, it cannot be hindered. Free speech is the base of democracy. It allows the people to have a voice. “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.” Such is the word of William Blake is his book, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. The 1984 Universal Declaration of Human Rights say “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”. Arguments are hard. Having personal comments challenged by others may hurt feelings, but it is necessary to learn. Without free speech, oppression is inevitable.

A diamond underwent hours of cutting and polishing to be valued more than it should have been. An eagle must break its own beak to grow a newer and stronger one. A human need to lose its milk teeth for the stronger, permanent ones to grow. Pain hurts. But the only response is to fight or fly from it. Indulge in opposing views as an opportunity to dive into intellectual conversation, and grow from it. Being sensitive is for the weak. As George Orwell says “The greatest enemy of clear language is insincerity”