The Tactics of the Regressive Left
Americans are about as divided as we have ever been in living memory. We have simply lost the ability to have a rational conversation about issues. Where we once reasoned with each other, we now talk past each other. Where we once criticized ideas, we now criticize people. Where we once attempted to understand our opponents, we now dehumanize them. Though the causes for this decline in the quality public discourse cannot be described parsimoniously, as there are multiple culprits to blame, for the purposes of this article I will focus on the movement dubbed by its critics as the “Regressive Left.”
Though the Regressive Left is a relatively new movement, it has proven itself again and again to be injurious to the free exchange of ideas. When it encounters a viewpoint with which it disagrees, it does not respond with carefully reasoned argument or an interrogation of the position, but rather with harsh, moralizing vitriol and uncharitable condemnation of the one propounding it. The discussion-limiting tactics of the regressive leftists are many, but here I will address three: trigger warnings, safe spaces, and speech codes.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “trigger warning” as “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material.” According to an op-ed written by Kate Manne in The New York Times, these are usually issued for the benefit of students who suffer from PTSD. To give an example of a trigger warning, in a class on Livy’s History of Rome, a professor might give a trigger warning to the class for the benefit of rape survivors when she assigns the section of the book describing the rape of the Sabine women.
There are a number of reasons why trigger warnings might be detrimental to the free exchange of ideas. For one, if a student really has PTSD severe enough that it compromises his ability to participate in a discussion about literature, then that student should not be at college until he has undergone treatment to allow him to live with his trauma. To be clear, I am not trying to blame people for their condition, or discriminate against people with legitimate mental health issues, or anything of the kind. If you cannot make it through an English class without having a panic attack, however, college is going to be a long, arduous, grueling affair largely devoid of enjoyment. The good news is that it does not have to be so. The effects of trauma are at least ameliorable through treatment, and so it would be foolish not to seek it. Rather than having the entire rest of the community walk on eggshells to avoid discussing any topic which might possibly trigger someone, would it not be better for the traumatized individual to learn to live with his trauma and then return a fully functional member of the college community?
Secondly, the real world comes without trigger warnings. If college is to prepare its students for any kind of meaningful career, it cannot teach them that the rest of the world will tiptoe carefully around controversy to avoid triggering them. The world is full of gruesome but unavoidable realities, some of which occasionally find themselves at the forefront of public discussion, and part of being an educated person is learning to engage, maturely and soberly, with these realities. Better that we do so in college, an environment designed to foster personal growth, than out in the real world.
Finally, trigger warnings, though designed to protect those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, give those without PTSD an excuse not to engage with distressing material, which is an inestimably valuable task. The unfortunate fact is that life is hard. Each life’s trajectory is unique, but none are free from angst, grief, loneliness, personal crisis, feelings of meaninglessness, or a whole host of other fundamentally human, and at their core trying, realities. Literature is often about facing these realities vicariously through the characters of a story. Trigger warnings attempt to deny us the profoundly valuable experience that literature is meant to provide, the experience of being plunged into the depths of our own fears, desires, and insecurities, and in doing so learning to understand and live with them. Introspection is difficult; it can lead us to feel a whole variety of negative emotions, but we come out the other end with a deeper knowledge of ourselves. Trigger warnings give us an excuse to circumvent that infinitely worthwhile task simply to avoid experiencing a few moments of doubt.
Some advocate that the classroom should be viewed as a safe space, an environment in which speech that is obviously hurtful in intent should never be permissible. The organization Advocates for Youth defines a safe space as “a place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person's self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.” I actually have no particular objection to this variety of safe space. In fact, open discussion in which all participants respect one another is vital to the free exchange of ideas.
However, the application of this relatively innocuous idea has been highly injurious to public debate. For example, The New York Times reported in March of last year that a group of students at Brown University established a “safe space” in anticipation of a debate over the existence of a rape culture for students who felt threatened by the ordeal of having their views challenged. It came complete with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.” One student was quoted as saying that she felt the need to retreat to the safe space because “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.”
The crux of this issue lies in confusion over the meaning of discomfort. On the one hand, one can feel uncomfortable when some inextricable element of one’s identity (race, sexual orientation, gender, etc.) is explicitly attacked. Such attempts to invalidate someone else’s identity have no place in civil discourse because they do not make an argument, but rather simply attempt to be offensive. But, on the other hand, one can also be uncomfortable when an ardently held belief comes under attack, and this intellectual form of discomfort should not only be allowed but is vital to civil discourse. College is all about bringing our own beliefs into question and determining whether or not we should actually believe them. If we were only exposed to things we knew in the first place, then college would simply be a massive waste of time and money. Intellectual discomfort is the lifeblood of learning, and any movement that wishes to keep its precious beliefs intact at the cost of unrestricted inquiry has no place on a college campus.
Since the birth of the Regressive Left on college campuses, many universities have implemented speech codes, limitations imposed by the administration on what students can and cannot say. These range in severity, but, to give an example of a fairly stringent speech code, Dickinson College has instituted a “Bias Incident Protocol,” which encourages students to report to the administration, or even the Campus Police, instances where a derogatory act or expression is directed at any group, regardless of whether said act or expression was intentional or unintentional. Dickinson is not the only school to adopt such a draconian policy; Skidmore, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Vassar, and many more have all adopted similar policies.
This trend is deeply problematic because it treats students as if they are children incapable of figuring out problems for themselves. When a child hears something he finds offensive on the playground, he is right to tell a teacher because children do not have the maturity to mediate conflicts among themselves. But college students are not children and should not be treated as such. If somebody says something racially insensitive, the appropriate response is not to ask some parental administration figure to swoop in and deliver justice, but to show the person who made the comment how it was insensitive, or to walk away and ignore the whole thing.
I will grant a few qualifications: threats of physical violence, explicit and intentionally dehumanizing attacks on a fundamental component of someone else’s identity, or gross and incorrigible harassment are all legitimate exceptions to the freedom of expression on college campuses. However, if the kneejerk response to any comment which might possibly be perceived as biased is to call the campus police, then a multitude of edifying and worthwhile conversations are obviated. If everyone is afraid of being reported to the administration for speaking their mind, then they will simply avoid discussing race altogether, and their biases will continue to simmer below the surface unaddressed. In an environment that instead fosters truly free and open discussion, that prejudice would be examined and ultimately dismantled. This is the harmfulness of speech codes: they do not truly do anything to combat prejudice, they only drive it out of public discussion where it goes unchecked. In other words, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
In case the arguments I have proposed in this article seem somehow abstract or unimportant, allow me to demonstrate the gravity of the issue. When civil discourse is no longer a viable option for adjudicating disputes (as is rapidly becoming the case as public conversation deteriorates), violence is the only remaining option. To give an example, last February, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk on diversity at California State University, Los Angeles. Student protesters barricaded the venue, refusing to allow anyone to enter. Eventually, Shapiro had to be escorted out by the police to protect his safety. We should all find this story profoundly disturbing. Luckily, no one was severely injured, but that very easily might not have been the case. A barricade is an implicit threat of violence. If a student had attempted to walk through the barricade to enter the venue, one can only imagine what would have happened. I picked this example because it highlights the potentially devastating consequences of speech-limiting movements, but it was by no means the only one I could have picked (the recent explosion of quasi-violent protests following the election and inauguration of Donald Trump comes to mind). The Regressive Left is at least partially responsible for the breakdown of civil discourse, and the breakdown of civil discourse encourages violence. Until debate is rehabilitated, I fear that ideologically-based violence will become ever more commonplace. Let us endeavor to fight this trend with vigor.
(Overhead photo credit: Jacqueline Pillar/Young America's Foundation)