Now trigger-happy university students

Academia is hell. In the latest higher-education fad, students want “trigger warnings,” according to The New York Times. It appears that some students are so fragile that they want university staff to protect them from big bad ideas.

Students around the country say they want “explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.” An Oberlin College draft — now “under revision” — for trigger warnings suggested faculty “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

At Rutgers University, a sophomore wrote, “Studying art is an emotionally draining experience.” And: “By creating trigger warnings for their students, professors can help to create a safe space for their students.”

Be aware: “Safe” also can mean keeping students safe from having to think freely. In March, University of California, Santa Barbara feminist studies professor Mireille Miller-Young got in an argument with anti-abortion protesters. I guess she lost, because she grabbed a protester’s sign; once in a “safe place,” her office, she destroyed it. Police charged the professor with vandalism, battery and robbery. According to the police report, Miller-Young, who was pregnant, said that the sign “triggered” a reaction in her and that she had acted in defense of her “right to go to work and not be in harm.”

Like Miller-Young, I find photos of aborted fetuses offensive. That leaves me with two options: Don’t look. Or try to persuade the young women waving the sign to desist.

The professor chose a third: to use force. Sadly, more than 1,000 students signed a petition that supports Miller-Young and urges UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang to re-evaluate “rules and regulations that allow outside community members to so heavily trigger and target students and faculty on this campus.”

Translation: We cannot handle free speech.

Miller-Young’s dissertation is titled “A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women, Sex Work and Pornography.” Free speech worked for her then, but now she doesn’t want to share it.

Then there’s the “hate speech” excuse. My pal Steve Hayward was invited to be the University of Colorado’s first visiting scholar in conservative thought. Before his year was up, a small group of academics wanted to haul him before the faculty assembly for a formal censure. His offense? He had posted a blog with a lame joke about “LGBTQRSTUW (or whatever letters have been added lately).” One professor charged that the post was “bordering on” hate speech.

Miller-Young called the anti-abortion sign “hate speech.” In Colorado, you don’t have to use hate speech; just border on it and they’ll go after you.

The trigger-happy may tell themselves politics have nothing to do with their efforts to silence others. The Miller-Young petition framed the issue as a matter of “safety.” In a way, they’re right. In many quarters in academia, it is not safe to think for yourself.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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