Are Trigger Warnings for White People? (Guest Post by Kristina Meshelski)

Kristina Meshelski, an assistant professor of philosophy at CSU Northridge, has kindly authored the following guest post about the recent discussion of trigger warnings at Bully Bloggers by Jack Halberstam (USC), “You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger, and Trauma.”

I know many philosophers who teach ethics use at the very least some form of this warning: “We are going to be discussing sensitive subjects in class.  Try to remain calm and respect your fellow students during the discussion.”  But this hardly seems adequate when, if your classes are like mine, the subjects of rape and/or slavery always seem to come up.  Many people now think we need something more specific, something to make sure that students who have experienced trauma or may be particularly sensitive to it don’t feel blindsided.  This is what’s known as the “trigger warning.”

Trigger warnings are a hot topic, and many professors are now using them in the classroom.  See this post from Feminist Philosophers for a generally positive round-up of perspectives from philosophers.

Recently Jack Halberstam posted a criticism of trigger warnings at Bully Bloggers. She* says:

In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one.

Halberstam mocks this trend as similar to an outdated “weepy white lady feminism” that was rightfully replaced by “a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism” in the 1990s.

There are lots of other things going on in the post, and there has already been a fair amount of criticism of Halberstam’s post online (here’s one).

Though I have many concerns about the various claims Halberstam makes, especially her characterization of the Trannyshack debate, I wonder if there isn’t something in there that philosophers should consider.  Halberstam argues that young people use descriptive statements about individual harm as replacement for actual social activism, which would involve recognizing inequality.  She says

let’s all take a hard long look at the privileges that often prop up public performances of grief and outrage; let’s acknowledge that being queer no longer automatically means being brutalized and let’s argue for much more situated claims to marginalization, trauma and violence.

If Halberstam is right that trigger warnings are part of a general movement toward liberal individualism that makes all pain seem equal and obscures real oppression then that would mean that philosophers who use or condone trigger warnings in the name of inclusiveness are in fact only being inclusive towards white women or white LGBT students rather than those with other racial or class identities.  We are perhaps further alienating students who are already alienated from academic philosophy when we allow the relatively privileged to claim a trauma that is treated as equal to the trauma of the less privileged.

What do you think?

(*Note: Halberstam has no preferred pronoun.)

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