Are anti-sexual assault advocates on college campuses ‘hysterical’?

Stuart S. Taylor thinks they might be, as Susan Svrluga reports over at WaPo. I really only have about five minutes to put this post up — so I’ll let readers respond more thoroughly in the comments but, immediately, this part of what Taylor said struck me as something in need of corrective comment:

[T]o resolve any doubt that the respondents were far from representative of the nation’s college students, consider the facts buried in Tables 3-2 and 6-1 of the AAU survey.

These tables indicate that about 2.2 percent of female respondents said they had reported to their schools that they had been penetrated without consent (including rape) since entering college. If extrapolated to the roughly 10 million female college student population nationwide, this would come to about 220,000 student reports to universities alleging forced sex over (to be conservative) five years, or about 44,000 reports per year.

But this would be almost nine times the total number of students (just over 5,000) who reported sexual assaults of any kind to their universities in 2013, the most recent data available, according to the reports that universities must submit to the federal government under the Clery Act.

You absolutely cannot rely on the numbers reported under the Clery Act if what you want to know is how many sexual assaults are reported to universities and colleges full stop. Firstly, there’s a question about the extent to which institutions comply with the Clery Act in the first place (hence the push for increased fines as a consequence of violation in the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, and increased scrutiny under the Campus SaVE Act). Secondly, and possibly more significantly in terms of numbers, there is a limit as to which reports of assault need to also be reported under the Clery Act. If an assault happened off-campus, if it was not reported to campus security personnel (e.g., campus police), it may not be reflected in a school’s Clery report — even if it was reported to the university in other ways (e.g., a Title IX office, student disciplinary office, etc.).

Why One Philosopher Uses Trigger Warnings

Kate Manne in the New York Times:

Triggered reactions can be intense and unpleasant, and may even overtake our consciousness, as with a flashback experienced by a war veteran. But even more common conditions can have this effect. Think, for example, about the experience of intense nausea. It comes upon a person unbidden, without rational reflection. And you can no more reason your way out of it than you reasoned your way into it. It’s also hard, if not impossible, to engage productively with other matters while you are in the grip of it. You might say that such states temporarily eclipse our rational capacities.

For someone who has experienced major trauma, vivid reminders can serve to induce states of body and mind that are rationally eclipsing in much the same manner. A common symptom of PTSD is panic attacks. Those undergoing these attacks may be flooded with anxiety to the point of struggling to draw breath, and feeling disoriented, dizzy and nauseated. Under conditions such as these, it’s impossible to think straight.

The thought behind trigger warnings isn’t just that these states are highly unpleasant (although they certainly are). It’s that they temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so. Trigger warnings can work to prevent or counteract this.

As teachers, we can’t foresee every instance of potentially triggering material; some triggers are unpredictable. But others are easy enough to anticipate, specifically, depictions or discussions of the very kinds of experiences that often result in post-traumatic stress and even, for some, a clinical disorder. With appropriate warnings in place, vulnerable students may be able to employ effective anxiety management techniques, by meditating or taking prescribed medication . . .  It’s not about coddling anyone. It’s about enabling everyone’s rational engagement.

On the Syrian Refugee Crisis

A few pieces on the Syrian refugee crisis have been published by philosophers in the last couple of days. If you know of others please do mention them in the comments.

William MacAskill writes in The Guardian:

The question of how many refugees to accept is purely a political one, not an economic one. Government officials have claimed that it’s a better use of public funds to help abroad. But that’s completely wrong. If we let refugees in and allow them to work (as they would be keen to do), the evidence shows that the standard of living and unemployment rates for UK natives would remain about the same; the main effect is to radically increase the quality of life for the refugee. Compare the situation now to the Hungarian revolution of 1956: Austria, still broken from the second world war, took in 2% of its population in refugees, and emerged even stronger as a result. The UK could welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees to work here without damaging our economy.

Calum Miller writes in the Huffington Post:

This is not about us. It is not entirely clear whether we would suffer from increasing our refugee intake. But suppose we did. How could we possibly lose anything close to what these families would gain from being here? And how is it that our being lucky enough to be born into affluence could possibly justify not sacrificing some of that for those born into warzones? How can we talk so much about our own economic growth and yet ignore the families torn apart around the world, who come humbly to us, knocking on our door for help? Economics is important. And practical politics is important. But it is all worthless if it is not put to the service of those who need our help most desperately.

And our own Jenny Saul writes in the NewStatesman:

To some, this attack [on the use of the term ‘migrant’] is baffling. A migrant is just a person who migrates, surely, and these people are migrating. What can be wrong with this truthful description? One thing that might be wrong with it, however, is that, according to the UN, that’s not what a migrant is:

The term ‘migrant’… should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of ‘personal convenience’ and without intervention of an external compelling factor.

While maybe among the desperate risking their lives to escape places like Syria and Afghanistan, there is a person or two who has joined them for reasons of “convenience”, these people are surely vanishingly rare. According to the UN, then, it is simply factually wrong to call these people migrants.

But why, a more compelling objection goes, should we even care about language? People are dying and need help, and there goes the left again worrying about words. The reason to care about language is that the language we deliberate in shapes our deliberations.

 

Trigger Warnings

There’s been a fair amount of discussion of trigger warnings recently (well, for months now, but especially over the last few weeks) in the media. As the academic year begins, and syllabi are on our minds, the debate is unlikely to go away. My own view is that this entire conversation has been poorly (perhaps, not accidentally) framed. We would do well to avoid false dichotomies that undermine the interests of both purported parties to the debate. That is, the division on this issue appears to be largely between professors and students. It’s the case of Academic Freedom, Intellectual Tradition, and Good Sense, et. al. vs. Entitled, Sensitive, and Zealous Student Activists Who Need to Toughen Up — except, I don’t think it really is.

The AAUP’s report on trigger warnings raises a number of concerns regarding trigger warnings. Among them, concerns of conflict with academic freedom insofar as faculty may be pressured or required to include trigger warnings on their syllabi against their own pedagogical judgement, concerns that students will be encouraged to lodge complaints if a course covers material that they find offensive, concerns that faculty will be held responsible for student trauma, concerns that trigger warnings serve to stifle discussion, and so on. It is interesting that trigger warnings elicit such a plethora of worries and spark intense disagreement when the practice of advising discretion or offering notice of content is more widespread. Lindy West suggests that “trigger warning” might be operating something like a dogwhistle now:

Back in early July, comedian Jimmy Fallon tripped on a rug in his kitchen, caught his wedding ring on the counter as he fell, and suffered a gruesome injury called a ‘ring avulsion’– basically, a medical term for ripping your finger off. Fallon spent 10 days in intensive care and came close to losing the digit, which, unfortunately, most ring avulsion sufferers do. Explaining his massive white bandage when he returned to his late-night show weeks later, Fallon warned: ‘If you Google it, it’s graphic. So don’t Google it’ . . . Odd that the anti-free-speech brigade isn’t up in arms about announcements such as Fallon’s – surely he, too, is “coddling” his audience, withholding valuable ‘exposure therapy’ for avulsion victims and infringing on Google’s free expression. It’s almost as though, coded as feminine and largely associated with rape victims, the antipathy toward trigger warnings is about something else entirely.

Even if West is right, not all of the dissent on trigger warnings is reducible to bias.  I think the most pressing concerns, though, are not in fact concerns about trigger warnings themselves, nor are they fundamentally concerns with student requests for them. They are, rather, at root concerns borne out of the corporatization of the university. Where administrators view students as customers and respond to conflict on campus by way of risk-assessment both faculty and students are worse off; but this isn’t students’ fault and it doesn’t entail that students have no place in discussions about curricula and pedagogy. In fact, this self-same administrative strategy  has greatly contributed to the traumas associated with sexual misconduct amongst students, one of the most salient phenomena requests for trigger warnings are a response to.

As we grapple with administrative creep — with this risk-averse financially-minded way of living together as an educational community increasingly being woven into the fabric of university life — I think it would be a mistake for faculty and students to forget that the sharpest division in the trigger warning debate is an artifice of someone else’s making. Students are (rightfully) frustrated that public relations, athletic titles, and protecting the university brand so often come before student safety.  Likewise, faculty are (rightfully) frustrated  with administrative overreach into their classrooms, their research, and the very structure of faculty governance. When we consider the background dynamics of the trigger warning debate, it seems to me that there is more in these frustrations to unite students and faculty than there is to divide them. Without the fear of administrative creep, disagreement regarding best pedagogical practices would surely remain, but what issue is free from disagreement in higher education? It’s in the context of the neoliberal, corporatized, university that controversy encourages censorship (self-censorship, or otherwise) and that trauma can be exacerbated in unique and challenging ways.

As Aaron Hanlon explains, trigger warnings themselves are meant to encourage greater engagement with a broader range of material rather than discourage it.

I use trigger warnings in the classroom as a way of preparing students who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder while also easing the entire class into a discussion of the material. The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.

Trigger warnings are not the end of controversial material in the classroom; they are a new beginning. A way for faculty to reach out to students, who might otherwise struggle, as partners in an intellectual journey into risky territory. They may well have their pitfalls, but perhaps some of the surrounding frustration has been misdirected.

Masculinity and struggles with body image

There’s a great piece by Tyler Kingkade on dealing with issues of body image as a man in the Huffington Post. I recommend reading in full but here’s just a preview:

About half of all men don’t like having their picture taken or being seen in swimwear, according to an NBC Today Show/AOL Body Image survey from last year. Research from theUniversity of the West of England found a majority of guys felt part of their body wasn’t muscular enough, and more men than women would sacrifice at least a year of their life in exchange for a perfect body . . . Contemporary masculinity does not permit a man to admit his physique is less than ideal. But if men could be more open about their own insecurities, without fear of violating the unspoken rules of masculinity, we’d do better at accepting our flaws in our bodies. And maybe then we could get closer to doing what Blashill recommended: “acknowledging there are many ways to be healthy.” . . . At 27, I’m able to admit I don’t like my body. But it shouldn’t have taken me years to get to that point. I spent too long feeling like I had a secret, that I was hiding my weight issues, unable to talk about it, because rules of masculinity forbid it.

There’s also a follow up piece here.

Class action lawsuit over trauma and disability in Compton schools

The full story is at NPR. (Perhaps especially relevant and of interest to those following broader discussions going on in academia regarding trauma and student accommodations.)

An unprecedented, class action lawsuit brought against one Southern California school district and its top officials could have a big impact on schools across the country. . .

The complaint is a terrifying read — of kids coping with physical and sexual abuse, addicted parents, homelessness and a constant fear of violence.

One of the plaintiffs, listed as 15-year-old Phillip W., says he witnessed his first murder when he was 8.

“Somebody got shot in the back of the head with a shotgun,” the boy explains in a video on a website dedicated to the case. “And they threw him over the rail, and he was just sitting there bleeding, blood all down the sewer line. It was a horrifying sight.”

The complaint says Phillip has witnessed more than 20 shootings and, in 2014, was hit in the knee by a bullet.

What’s this have to do with Compton’s schools?

Susan Ko of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress says exposure to violence can have a profound effect on the brain’s ability to learn.

“That impacts concentration, the ability to just listen to what the teacher is saying, to understand what you’re reading, to remember something that you learned or what the teacher just said,” Ko says.

Not only that, many traumatized students live in a state of constant alarm. Innocent interactions like a bump in the hallway or a request from a teacher can stir anger and bad behavior.

The lawsuit alleges that, in Compton, the schools’ reaction to traumatized students was too often punishment — not help.

“They were repeatedly either sent to another school, expelled or suspended — and this went back to kindergarten,” says Marleen Wong, who teaches at the USC School of Social Work and has spent decades studying kids and trauma. “I think we’re really doing a terrible disservice to these children.”

The suit argues that trauma is a disability and that schools are required — by federal law — to make accommodations for traumatized students, not expel them. The plaintiffs want Compton Unified to provide teacher training, mental health support for students and to use conflict-mediation before resorting to suspension. . .

This idea — of treating trauma in children as a disability — is new, though the problem is not, says Ko. “Twenty-five percent of kids will have experienced a traumatic event before the age of 16.”

Not all of those children will struggle in school. But many will — and not just in Compton.

How not to address sexual harassment

Missouri legislature edition (via HuffPo):

“We need a good, modest, conservative dress code for both the males and females,” state Rep. Nick King (R) said in an email to colleagues. “Removing one more distraction will help everyone keep their focus on legislative matters.”

The state legislature began working on its new intern program policies after Missouri House Speaker John Diehl (R) resigned in May, when the Kansas City Star revealed he sent sexually suggestive text messages to a 19-year-old intern.

Two months later, Sen. Paul LeVota (D) resigned after two interns accused him of sexual harassment. In a statement, he denied any wrongdoing.

But the problem appears to be more widespread. Dozens of women have said they were sexually harassed while working at the state capitol. In that report, a former state senator called the culture in Jefferson City “very anything goes.”

On Monday, state Rep. Kevin Engler (R) sent out a list of proposed changes for the program to his fellow House members. The Kansas City Star reported that that’s when several legislators, initiated by state Rep. Bill Kidd (R), responded by suggesting Engler should add an intern dress code to the list.

Another Title IX lawsuit against Northwestern is proceeding

This time, from a student in the School of Medicine.

A Feinberg School of Medicine student is suing Northwestern under Title IX saying the school responded with “deliberate indifference” after he reported he was sexually harassed by a professor.

A federal judge ruled last week that the student can move forward with his Title IX lawsuit against the University. His lawyer confirmed Friday that he will do so.

Judge Sara L. Ellis ruled Aug. 6 that the medical student can make his case that the University retaliated against him and did not respond as rapidly or as strongly to his grievances as it has to similar complaints filed by female students. Ellis dismissed the student’s allegation that the University responded inadequately to his sexual harassment complaint.

The student says a Feinberg microbiology and pathology professor sexually harassed him and later retaliated against him after the student rejected his advances by assigning him poor grades, opposing his application to a fellowship and directing others to discontinue a promised scholarship, according to the suit.

The Charleston Massacre

From Vox:

Wednesday night, a white man walked into a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine parishioners. Today, a Confederate flag is flying on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia — as it does every day. While the flags on top of the statehouse itself are flying at half-mast, the Confederate flag (displayed at a Civil War memorial) is flying at full mast.

There’s more historical context regarding the church itself, here. Today, I’ve been remembering the words of Langston Hughes:

The past has been a mint
Of blood and sorrow.
That must not be
True of tomorrow.

James Rhodes, on the importance of bearing witness

“It’s important to bear witness, but also it’s important to give a message that bad things happen and we don’t lie about it, we don’t hide it, we don’t pretend it hasn’t happened, we don’t do everything we can to remove every piece of evidence that it happened, to erase the past.”

This is from an interview regarding his legal battle to publish a memoir in which he discusses his experience of being sexually abused as a child

But, he says, it’s also “a book about music. It’s a love story, it’s a book to Hattie, my wife, who’s the greatest thing ever. It’s a book about my son, about composers, about the extraordinary lives that these composers and musicians lead, it’s about all the things that are important to me. I don’t ever want this to be ‘the guy who was abused as a kid’, any more than I want, ‘this is the guy who’s a Pisces. This is the guy who’s 5ft 11in … 10½ … I live in Queen’s Park, I’m married to a woman who is a 10 when at best I’m a five and a half or a six on a really good day, I play the piano. . .

Last year, his previous wife took out an injunction against publication, on the basis that to have these “toxic” details in the public domain would harm their son. This was rejected in the first court case, but upheld on appeal, and in an elaborately restrictive judgment. “It ended up being a bunch of judges having editorial control over what I said. Literally to the point where I wasn’t allowed to use graphic language or vivid and colourful descriptions. I could use the word ‘rape’, but I couldn’t use the phrase ‘getting raped’ … ”He pauses, and recalls: “The shock of being told, in effect, you can’t say that. Not only can you not write it in a book, but we are trying to gag you from speaking anywhere in the world on any medium – on Twitter, in interviews, on TV – about not just sexual abuse but mental illness. Can you imagine? I wouldn’t be able to tell you now that I’m in treatment for mental illness without being threatened with imprisonment, had this been successful.”

Thankfully, he won in court. You can read the full story here.