What’s Wrong with the AAUP’s Report on Title IX: Preponderance of the Evidence Standard Redux

I posted a couple of days ago about some of the problems with the AAUP’s recent report on Title IX. I think there are others, but for considerations of space, just mentioned two: one of which was the AAUP’s resistance to the preponderance of the evidence standard, the other was the AAUP’s confusion regarding the increase and manner of OCR investigations. At some point, I think it would be valuable to discuss some of those other issues (I’ll draw on a couple of points from this letter from the National Women’s Law Center below, but I encourage you to read it in full as it pertains to some of the other issues in the report as well), but first, more on the justification for the preponderance standard.

Brian Leiter wrote a reply to my post, taking issue with this passage:

But, more to the point, if Title IX complaints were held to a higher standard than a preponderance of the evidence when other civil rights claims are adjudicated by exactly that standard, then it would follow that complainants would be held to a higher standard, i.e., disadvantaged, on the basis of sex, i.e., they would be subject to sexual discrimination.

I cited Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education in the explanation of my thinking, and in an update on his post, Leiter writes, “that retaliation for reporting sex discrimination is actionable sex discrimination for purposes of Title IX does nothing to establish that a higher standard of proof to prevail on a sex discrimination claim is sex discrimination.” Leiter is right that, in itself, that retaliation in the context of Title IX constitutes sex discrimination says nothing about standards of proof, but I didn’t say that it did. What I did say is that I think the courts’ reasoning in the course of determining whether or not retaliation constitutes discrimination – i.e., how the court defined what it is for something to constitute “discrimination on the basis of sex” – does.

Here’s that language again (emphasis mine):

In all of these cases, we relied on the text of Title IX, which, subject to a list of narrow exceptions not at issue here, broadly prohibits a funding recipient from subjecting any person to “discrimination” “on the basis of sex.” 20 U. S. C. ß1681. Retaliation against a person because that person has complained of sex discrimination is another form of intentional sex discrimination encompassed by Title IX’s private cause of action. Retaliation is, by definition, an intentional act. It is a form of “discrimination” because the complainant is being subjected to differential treatment. See generally Olmstead v. L. C., 527 U. S. 581, 614 (1999) (KENNEDY, J., concurring in judgment) (the “normal definition of discrimination” is “differential treatment”); see also Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. v. EEOC, 462 U. S. 669, 682, n. 22 (1983) (discrimination means “less favorable” treatment). Moreover, retaliation is discrimination “on the basis of sex because” it is an intentional response to the nature of the complaint: an allegation of sex discrimination. . .

The import of the Jackson language quoted is not that the retaliation was a response to the person (Roderick Jackson) but to the claim (in Jackson’s case, a series of complaints about unequal treatment that he felt were prohibited by Title IX).  It can be analogized to campus responses to sexual assault cases in the following way: when a victim makes a complaint that s/he was sexually assaulted, under Title IX that is a claim of sex discrimination, because sexual assault is a severe form of sexual harassment, and sexual harassment has been confirmed by SCOTUS to be a form of sex discrimination.  Therefore, if the school responds to that claim using a process that requires a higher standard of proof than the standard of proof that the school uses for other claims, ones that do not implicate Title IX and do not allege sex discrimination, that is, in the words of the Court in Jackson, “differential treatment.”  So if a student made a complaint that s/he was the victim of harassment based on his/her race, the school would be required under Title VI to use a preponderance of the evidence standard.  If the school were still using “clear and convincing evidence” for sexual assault cases, this would mean that claims of sex discrimination (severe sexual harassment in the form of sexual assault) would be treated differently, and less favorably, by the school from claims of race discrimination (racial harassment).

Similarly, if one white, male, heterosexual student accused another white, male, heterosexual student of punching him in the face and the school used a preponderance of the evidence standard in its process for responding to that assault, but was still using “clear and convincing” in its process for sexual assault, that would be differential treatment based on the nature of the claim, where the claim alleging discrimination based on sex got “‘less favorable treatment” (see language from Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. v. EEOC, 462 U.S. 669, 682, n. 22, 103 S.Ct. 2622, 77 L.Ed.2d 89 (1983) included in Jackson) than the claim not alleging discrimination based on sex.

The National Women’s Law Center (lead counsel in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education) seems to agree that parity with other claims justifies the use of the preponderance standard in Title IX claims: Given that Title IX was modeled after Title VI, and preponderance of the evidence is the standard used in claims brought under Title VI, it is also the standard that applies to Title IX claims. The preponderance standard is also used in litigation of claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, regarding sex discrimination in employment. Thus, it is the correct standard for allegations of sexual harassment, including violence.” (If you doubt that courts have taken up this standard, note the footnotes to this passage in their letter.)

Likewise, Nancy Cantalupo, in the piece I linked to a few days ago, writes,

Allowing schools to adopt a criminalized standard of proof such as “clear and convincing” evidence or “beyond a reasonable doubt,” . . . would also create legal and administrative barriers for student survivors of gender-based violence that do not apply to the vast majority of comparable populations involved in civil or civil rights proceedings, all of which use the preponderance standard. To name just a few, these groups include: other students alleging other kinds of sex discrimination; students alleging discrimination based on other protected categories, like race or disability; gender-based violence survivors seeking protection orders in civil court; students alleging other forms of student misconduct; and students accused of sexual or any other misconduct who sue their schools in civil court. In reality the preponderance standard is used in the vast majority of cases, not only in internal disciplinary proceedings but also in other administrative or civil court proceedings and under other civil rights statutes that protect equality . . . Indeed, separating out sexual violence victims for different procedural treatment would enact a new kind of damaging “exceptionality [for] rape,” as Michelle Anderson discusses in her paper for the September 25 Conversation. Using anything more stringent than a preponderance standard would symbolize that we as a society are comfortable with giving one group of women and girls, as well as men and boys who are gender-minorities and victimized because of it, unequal treatment when compared to everyone else.

In a footnote on this passage, Cantalupo notes:

Research shows that the majority of higher education institutions had voluntarily adopted a preponderance of the evidence standard for all student conduct proceedings by the early 2000s. See Michelle J. Anderson, Sexual The Legacy of the Prompt Complaint Requirement, Corroboration Requirement, and Cautionary Instructions on Campus Assault, 84 B.U. L. Rev. 945, 1000 (2004); Heather M. Karjane et al., Campus Sexual Assault: How America’s Institutions of Higher Education Respond 122 tbl.6.12 (2002), http://www.hhd.org/sites/hhd.org/files/mso44.pdf  [http://perma.cc/9Z57-PHR5]. Therefore, using a different standard from the preponderance standard in cases involving sexual or other forms of gender-based violence would mean that student victims of gender-based violence would be less protected than students who are victimized by another student in any other way.

Now, Geoffrey Stone has argued against the preponderance standard as follows (emphasis mine):

To justify its insistence on the preponderance of the evidence standard, the Department of Education draws an analogy to civil actions in court. In the typical civil law suit for damages, whether the issue is a car accident, a breach of contract, or an assault, the standard is preponderance of the evidence. But this is a bad analogy. For a college or university to expel a student for sexual assault is a matter of grave consequence both for the institution and for the student. Such an expulsion will haunt the students for the rest of his days, especially in the world of the Internet. Indeed, it may well destroy his chosen career prospects. This is especially likely, for example, for law students.

To the extent that analogy between internal Title IX complaints at an educational institution and action in courts is apt (there is a substantive difference in that what happens in court is thereby public record), the analogy to civil action is far more apt than an analogy to criminal proceedings. In addition to the fact that in criminal cases it is the state, and not the alleged victim, who is party to the proceedings, as Stone writes, civil law adjudicated by a preponderance of the evidence standard provides relief for assault. Again, from the National Women’s Law Center:

The preponderance of the evidence standard is appropriate even in cases where there could be criminal sanctions for the defendant’s actions. For example, it is used in civil proceedings between two private parties, where—like a campus grievance proceeding for a complaint of sexual harassment—each party “has an extremely important, but nevertheless relatively equal, interest in the outcome.” This includes civil proceedings arising out of conduct that can also be criminal, but where there is no authority to impose criminal sanctions, such as a civil tort action for battery, robbery, or murder.

This goes, too, for civil cases regarding sexual violence. For instance, cases brought under California Civil Code Section 52.4, or Illinois’ Gender Violence Act.

Of course, Stone is right that expulsion may haunt a student. We should absolutely take that seriously, and I do. At the same time, let’s not forget how many students are expelled for infractions like plagiarism as compared to sexual assault; let’s not forget having been subject to sexual violence may haunt a victim; let’s not forget that being subject to sexual discrimination (including sexual harassment and assault) might, and in a number of cases has, destroyed victims’ chosen career prospects; let’s not forget that victims are often forced to transfer schools, or drop out; let’s not forget that victims have also been dragged through the nasty trenches of the internet, nor that some have been driven to suicide as a result. Moreover, let’s not forget that it is exactly these kinds of effects that educational institutions are legally obligated to address insofar as they impact one’s access to education; that is, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The Question of Rehabilitation and Resources in the Aftermath of Sexual Assault

[Discussion of sexual assault and it’s effects on people below.]
This past summer, Buzzfeed published a long-form article about Hanna Stotland, a lawyer who helps students accused of “sexual misconduct” re-apply to other universities. You can read it here.

In response to the article, Abby Woodhouse, a rape survivor, published an open letter. You can read it here.

There are two big issues that caught my attention from these articles:

(1) The way we culturally conceive of rape is often that it is either (a) an unforgivable, unintelligible act of evil, or (b) it’s not really rape, aka rape-rape, so it’s something like “gray rape” or “a mistake” or “an unfortunate miscommunication involving not-fully-consensual sex,”

I think the “unintelligibly” of committing rape is in one way a hindrance to seeking justice for those who experience it. In a way similar to how mass shooters are often portrayed as crazy and unintelligible, the sociopathic, evil rapist is not something we need to try to understand–thankfully. Because, if rape were a perfectly intelligible result of cultural suggestions that men’s value comes from their power of control and mastery over the world, and that a major reward for being powerful is entitlement to sex, (and that being a man is the best thing you could be),  well then, we are all awash in images and messages that condone rape, and we ourselves condone messages that are on a spectrum whose extreme ends in rape–so we are all potential rapists. There but for the grace of my blood alcohol levels go I.

What is really unintelligble to us, I think, is that the word of a woman, the way that a single woman perceives and experiences an event, could be the arbiter of whether another human deserves to be ostracized or punished.
A woman having that much authority in the world? Talk about inconceivable. The poor souls who would be subjected to such standards of ‘justice’…

…which leads me to a second major issue:

(2) It is striking that there often seems to be more resources and public empathy available for those who are accused of committing sexual assault than there is for those who experience it.

I myself feel the tug on my heartstrings when I hear a story about a young man who may have been falsely accused of a crime, and he contemplates how many less opportunities he may now have in life.

I feel more numb when I read Abby Woodhouse’s account of the “trauma and pain” that she has been left to deal with. We are often asked to consider what it would be like for a single mistake to potentially ruin a young person’s chances at a normal, happy life. We are rarely asked to consider what it would be like to not have not made any mistake, but being made to live potentially with haunting memories, broken trust in your fellow human beings, and an inescapable sense of feeling wholly unsafe in your own skin.

Stotland makes a valid point that, unless we think a person should suffer social death when they commit sexual assault, we need to figure out what the process should look like for reincorporating them into higher education.

But a sad and shameful aspect of this story is that survivors of rape and sexual assault also struggle with various degrees of social death. Many struggle to stay in school, stay connected with their families and social circles, etc. due to the effects of PTSD, depression, unshakable feelings of shame, and our deep cultural insensitivity to those who are brazen enough to be taken advantage of and insist on reminding us it–reminding us of their vulnerability (and ours) with their presence.
There but for the grace of the skirt I wear go I.

So where are the counselors to help them switch schools or rebuild their resume? Why is that not something that we prioritize?

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.

Sexual Assault & Students with a Disability

“The hidden victims of campus sexual assault: Students with disabilities”

“Even Gallaudet University, designed specifically for deaf students, can get it wrong when it comes to rape”

“Nationally, research has shown that individuals with disabilities experience sexual assault at significantly higher rates than the general population and that they also face critical gaps in services when they seek help for abuse. At the same time, experts say, schools have yet to adequately assess or address the issue on their campuses. “

“Al Jazeera America’s six-month investigation into sexual violence at Gallaudet — which included interviews with a dozen current or former students who say they were sexually assaulted, senior Gallaudet administrators, Title IX and disability experts, and an analysis of the university’s judicial board actions — reveals that even a school explicitly designed for students with disabilities can struggle in dealing with sexual assault.”

One story:

“Melissa thought his [Mike’s] behavior was creepy, and she reported him to Gallaudet’s Department of Public Safety. Since he wasn’t a student, she hoped DPS would bar Mike from campus. Instead, she says, the DPS officer she met with didn’t take her seriously: “He was sort of casual.” He started asking Melissa questions about her blindness, she says, and whether she could really know if she was being stalked. “If you couldn’t see him,” Melissa says the officer asked her, “how do you know it was Mike stalking you, and not someone else?”

“Yes, she was blind, but Melissa had other ways of identifying people, she insisted. She gave the officer details about the roughness of his hands when he signed to her, the things he said to her, and even offered to show him his Facebook profile picture. But without visual identification, Melissa says, the DPS officer told her there was no way they could pursue the claim or bar Mike.”

Another story:

“The two women, whose names and some identifying features have been changed, began dating. But within a month and a half, Alma says, their relationship took a turn. It began with a light punch. As a survivor of abuse growing up, Alma told Lisa the punch triggered bad memories.

Alma says Lisa suggested that it was playful and described growing up in a difficult home. Feeling guilty, Alma scolded herself for not being sensitive enough.

But over the course of their five-and-a-half-month relationship, the abuse escalated, she says. If Lisa felt Alma spoke too loudly, she would pinch her. And when Alma reacted, she says, Lisa would snap, “Oh my God, do you know how awful you sound?”

Alma had no idea what her voice sounded like, but she did know that the fastest way to disempower her was to demean the way she spoke. “The verbal insults became the root of the relationship,” Alma recalls. “Before I knew it, I was getting in trouble for talking to my friends.” [It gets worse.]

“But the worst part, she says, were the questions the other officer asked her.

““Are you sure you were raped?”

““You call that rape?”

““Do you know what the definition of ‘rape’ is?””

On how the university handles sexual assault:

“in October, an article in the university’s newspaper told an unnamed survivor’s account of why she didn’t report assault. “It had nothing to do with how the university would handle it,” the piece began. “But it had everything to do with me being embarrassed.” Later, it continued, “I’ve seen how Gallaudet has improved in how they handle sexual assault and rape cases, and I have faith in how they run the system.” But while the university was being defended by its students, it was also trying to block the reporting that led to this article. During this investigation, Gallaudet, and representatives from a communications firm it hired, reached out to Al Jazeera America on several occasions to express concern about contacting sources for this story.

““We’ve all been dismissed as being the exception individually, even by people who are sympathetic and open to listening to our story,” explains one student who says she was groped by an unknown assailant one night. “People don’t want to see it as common [because] it’s scary. For one, it means it can happen to them. It also means admitting there is something wrong with a system they are a part of … Gallaudet is such a safe place in other ways, nobody wants to admit that there is an ugly underbelly.”” -Alma

 

Sex Education

Apparently, this was used as part of a sex ed class in Ohio.
1-3-Copy4
[The graphic shows a male figure, with the words, ‘You think. You approach and court. You base decisions on fact and experience. You say you like/love her. You state your needs. You have to lead. You want sex. You think sex is primarily physical. You don’t read minds’. It shows a female figure with the words, ‘She feels. She sits back and accepts. She bases decisions on emotion and expectation. She tests to see if you like/love her. She makes you figure out her needs. She gets to follow. She withholds sex. She thinks sex is primarily emotional. She thinks she does [read minds].’]

Boys and girls both received a copy of the same handout (so boys were always addressed as ‘you’ and girls referred to as ‘she’.

Students were also told:

Appreciating Gender Differences: Often there are many stereotypes attached to being male or female. Yet male and female together keep our species alive! Through knowing and appreciating the many differences in brain development and psychological processes of males vs. female one learn to accept and appreciate the differences.”

*face, palm*
You can read more here.

‘Somewhere in America’

Via Bustle, a spoken word performance:

“The trio of teenage girls start the poem ominously: ‘The greatest lessons you will ever teach us, you won’t even remember.’ From there, they jump into fairly controversial, dark topics like rape, race, gun control, socioeconomics, and censorship. Emotions rage so hard in the three-and-a-half-minute piece, occasionally you can spot a small vocal crack in the performance, but that just lends more validation to the truth they kept spouting. ‘Somewhere in America,’ ushers in the hard-to-hear stuff,  ‘Women are killed for rejecting dates, but God forbid I bring my girlfriend to prom.’ Another: ‘The preppy kids go thrifting because they think it sounds fun. But we go ‘cause that’s all we’ve got money for.’ “

The FEM Bible: feminist critiques of social media

The FEM Bible is a new initiative set up by some undergraduates in philosophy, and it’s great. Here’s their description:

“We are a feminist community fed up of the offensive posts being shared via Facebook & the internet. Our mission is to de-construct these posts by offering factual reviews on their damaging and oppressive nature.”
– FEMBible

The way the site works is simple: users submit a post or article of the kind often shared on social media that they found offensive, specifying who was harmed by it, how, and why it matters. . Posts intelligently discuss issues of sexism, classism, heterosexism, and shaming of survivors of sexual violence, among other issues. Websites purveying self-described ‘lad’ humour come in for a lot of justified criticism, as do various ‘clickbait’ type articles. Examples of material criticized includes facebook posts that sexualize breastfeeding, articles that applaud boys who have been sexually abused by female teachers as ‘lads’, and a Christmas card that offers ‘ten reasons why Santa must live on a housing estate’ (sample reason: ‘he only works once a year’ … yes, I know).

This initiative seems to sum up a lot that’s great about the kind of feminist activism that I’m seeing around my university at the moment: engaging, inclusive, intersectionally aware, media savvy. It’s fantastic to see such smart pushback from young activists against oppressive online material – check it out!

Yes means yes bill in California

From the Daily Beast:

On Thursday, the California state legislature voted to replace the “no means no” standard for sexual consent on college campuses with the affirmative “yes means yes” definition. Under this standard, silence or lack of resistance is not considered a legally acceptable way to convey consent. Inebriation will also not be considered an acceptable defense. Gov. Jerry Brown has until September 30 to sign the bill. If he does, all colleges receiving state funding would have to adhere to “yes means yes.” Campus assault advocates have been pushing for such reform, arguing that “ no means no” unfairly burdens victims. However, many worry that “yes means yes” is a vague standard.

 

 

2013 Gender Inequality Index

The U.N. (Development Program) released the 2014 Human Development Report (and the 2013 Human Development Index within it) a few weeks ago on or around July 24, 2014. It incorporates data from 2013 for the latest Gender Inequality Index on pages 172-175 in Table 4. This index reflects gender inequality along three dimensions – reproductive health, empowerment, and the labor market – as rated by five indicators: both maternal mortality ratio and adolescent fertility rate for reproductive health, both shares of parliamentary seats and population with at least secondary education for empowerment, and labor force participation rates for the labor market.


This year, all 187 countries ranked in the 2013 Human Development Index are also ranked in the 2013 Gender Inequality Index. The U.S. ranks #47 (down from 42 last year), the U.K. ranks #35 (down from 34 last year), Canada ranks #23 (down from 18 from last year), Australia ranks #19 (down from 17 from last year), New Zealand ranks #34 (down from 31 from last year), and South Africa ranks #94 (down from 90 from last year).


Also out of those 187 countries (for the 2013 Gender Inequality Index…), Slovenia ranks #1 (up from 8), Switzerland ranks #2 (up from 3), Germany ranks #3 (up from 6), Sweden ranks #4 (down from 2), Denmark ranks #5 (down from 3 formerly with Switzerland), Austria also ranks #5 (up from 14), Netherlands ranks #7 (down from #1), Italy ranks #8 (up from 11), Belgium ranks #9 (up from 12), Norway also ranks #9 (down from 5), Finland ranks #11 (down from #6), and France ranks #12 (down from 9).


In addition, out of those 187 countries (for the 2013 Gender Inequality Index…), India ranks #127 (up from 132), Saudi Arabia ranks #56 (seemingly up from 145 – is that right?), Afghanistan ranks #169 (down from 147), and Yemen ranks #152 (down from 148).


Click here for a PDF of the full 2014 Human Development Report (with the Gender Inequality Index on pp. 172-175).

Click here for a more detailed account of the Gender Inequality Index that includes indicator data (for 2013 and also for some earlier grouped years).

Click here for a webpage that contains some frequently asked questions and answers about the UNDP Gender Inequality Index.

Click here and scroll down to “technical note 3” on pages 5-6 for a PDF file that provides details on how the Gender Inequality Index is calculated.


Unfortunately, the UNDP seems frequently to delete and/or change the URLs/web-addresses for the aforementioned links. Please report any changes (or updates!) in the comments and I will try to update accordingly.

Click here for links on/for the 2012 Gender Inequality Index


What do readers think? All sorts of data here for all sorts of comments…

The Ethics of Trigger Warnings in the Classroom

Trigger warnings (definition in the link) are a mainstay on many blogs and internet forums. People are also now starting to use them in books and on classroom syllabi. In response to this, there’s been a huge surge in articles discussing the ethics of using them. Most of these pieces worry that they do more harm than good.

Here’s a sampling of articles, op eds, and blog posts:

Salon. New York Times. NYT Op Ed.  New Republic. Los Angeles Times. The Atlantic. NY Mag. Huff Po. Mother Jones. Jezebel.
If you google “trigger warnings” and under “search tools” set the time frame to within one week (as of today, May 26th), you’ll find dozens more of them.

I take it that most of us can easily imagine the main arguments for using trigger warnings in the classroom: you are giving people a heads about about the material they are about to encounter, so that they can make better informed decisions about how and whether to engage the material, and you are signaling that you understand the severity of the material and consider it a valid decision if students to do not wish to engage the material at this time.

There are a lot of arguments in these articles against using trigger warnings in such a way. Many of them are bad arguments–they conflate serious trauma with any level of momentary discomfort, they seem to not understand how PTSD and anxiety disorders work at the most basic level, they trade on stereotypes of feminists wanting to keep people in a state of perpetual victimhood (thanks to Kate Manne for pointing this one out), and they don’t acknowledge the sheer levels of paternalism involved in their suggestions.

There are, however, some very thoughtful arguments and considerations that raise concerns about how we use trigger warnings and how we follow through with them. I quote some below, along with points in favor of using trigger warnings in the classroom. Comments are open and moderated.

“As someone who studies PTSD from several different perspectives and works with people who actually have PTSD, I think what is interesting about this conversation is that it seems like a basic understanding of trauma and PTSD is almost entirely missing. People who truly have PTSD are ‘triggered’ all the time. By many things. Most of which are not directly related to their trauma. Noises, smells, tastes, phrases, tactile experiences, thoughts, etc. etc. One of the most – if not the most – disruptive part of having PTSD is isolation. Feeling like what you’ve experienced is something that no one else can understand. Feeling like you are not like everyone else and never will be again. If we slap trigger warnings on books that mention war, I worry that we are further isolating the people who need just the opposite. I worry – particularly when it comes to combat related PTSD which the NYT article addresses – that we are sending a message that says, “You’re right. What you’ve been through is so terrible, what you’ve done is so inhuman that we cannot even talk about it.” I worry that though this is intended to come from a protective place that it sends the opposite message. The message that the rest of us don’t want to hear it, don’t want to have to worry about your emotions spilling over. People who have been traumatized – in my opinion – don’t need to be protected from being re-triggered. What they need is empathy. Instead of trigger warnings on syllabi, maybe we should have some classes (and trainings for profs) that attempt to understand trauma and PTSD so that we can all be better witnesses instead of just continuing to shut it all away.”
–Mary Catherine McDonald, philosopher

 

“I’ve used […trigger warnings] for graphic/sensitive material in my ethics classes (e.g., FGM, sexual assault) for a number of different reasons. Most obviously, there are students who really do need to opt out of discussions which may leave them feeling vulnerable and reeling because of past trauma. Nobody has opted to opt out yet, but I have been thanked for the warning, because it helped a student mentally prepare for what they were aware (and were aware that I was aware) could be an emotionally wrenching discussion. Also, as that brings out, being given a choice can be valuable in its expressive or symbolic value, even if it isn’t exercised or something which it would be good for that particular student to exercise in this instance. Namely, it says to them that opting out would be respected by me and that I am not assuming that they are all clearly going to be fine with talking through anything and everything which might be important to talk about in an ethics class in particular. And that they are not being excluded from philosophy in general if they are not prepared to participate in a more or less unpredictable discussion of (e.g.) bodily mutilation or sexual assault. Finally, and equally importantly, it signals to everyone else – i.e., the students who have no need whatsoever to opt out of the discussion – that this is a morally serious subject which we are going to approach in a morally serious way, remembering that what we are talking about real lives, real bodies, and real social practices.”
–Kate Manne, philosopher

 

“…It’s almost utterly unpredictable what will trigger people. It’s often not the topics themselves, but the smallest thing that unless someone *knows* is a trigger for me (for example), there’s no way they could have given adequate warning. And given my intersectional identity, things that are triggers for other people with sufficiently similar identities may not be triggers for me. This is related to the dilution worry: we’d have to essentially say: “This course may contain triggers.” If we tried to list them all, we’d fail (because we can’t predict how something we think is benign and unrelated is really someone’s #1 trigger) and the list would be massive.”
–Rachel McKinnon, philosopher

 

“…part of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers. The classroom is unsafe for rape survivors who encounter students in the process of learning why getting drunk at a party does not mean a woman deserves to be raped.”
–Brittney Cooper, writer, Salon (linked above)

 

“I kind of know where these critics are coming from, because I used to be one of them. I publicly joked that sappy songs required trigger warnings, and I privately complained that they were as infantilizing as spoiler alerts. But now that trigger warnings have gone mainstream, I find I’ve come full circle. Why should trigger warnings bother me? Like many of trigger warnings’ loudest opponents, I have noticed, I have no firsthand experience with rape or racial discrimination or cissexism. And a few words at the beginning of an article (or on a seminar syllabus) are no skin off my un-traumatized nose. In fact, what now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged? In their distress, critics have entirely overlooked an important distinction: Oberlin students aren’t trying to get out of reading Mrs. Dalloway because they’re special, sensitive snowflakes, or even get it removed from syllabi. They just want a three-word note on the syllabus giving them a heads-up that it addresses suicide. If that’s all it takes for instructors to prevent the shock it could cause a student who has been suicidal, it is, to me, a no-brainer.”
–Kat Stoeffel, writer, NY Mag (linked above)

 

“Kids in college are thought of as these young, naïve, uncorrupted youngsters who need knowledge dropped on them hard, but it gives me pause to acknowledge how many of them have been sexually assaulted or seen trauma already. Regardless of what you think we should do about that, it’s heartbreaking to think that some students begin an experience meant to challenge them already deeply challenged and fragile enough that they aren’t able to experience the positive cognitive dissonance being offered through an education.”
–Tracy Moore, writer, Jezebel (linked above)