Cornell University’s Student Assembly recently approved Resolution 31, which “implores all instructors to provide content warnings on the syllabus for any traumatic content that may be discussed, including but not limited to: sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial hate crimes, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment, [and] xenophobia.” Cornell President Martha Pollack rejected the resolution, explaining that the content warnings would impermissibly chill classroom speech and prevent students from asking good-faith questions about difficult topics. She said that “the actions it recommends would infringe on our core commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, and are at odds with the goals of a Cornell education.”
We commend President Pollack’s defense of academic freedom and opposition to Resolution 31 for the following reasons.
There are a few problems with the proposed policy. First, there is no scientific consensus that avoiding any possible trigger is the best solution for those who have experienced trauma. In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff quote Dr. Richard McNally of the Harvard University Department of Psychology:
Trigger warnings are counter-therapeutic because they encourage avoidance of reminder of trauma, and avoidance maintains PTSD. Severe emotional reactions triggered by course material are a signal that students need to prioritize their mental health and obtain evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapies that will help them overcome PTSD. These therapies involve gradual, systematic exposure to traumatic memories until their capacity to trigger distress diminishes.
Another problem is overbreadth. Note the language, “including but not limited to”; are instructors responsible for knowing what triggers each student in their class? And if a well-meaning instructor, eager to comply, emails the class roster before the semester begins and asks for everybody’s triggers, would that not be a trigger in and of itself? A pre-trigger, perhaps?
Third, trigger warnings do not satisfy the misguided desire for comfort and safety that motivates this resolution. We are reminded of Hamline University’s maltreatment of adjunct art history professor Erika López Prater. Readers may recall that Dr. Prater showed to her class an image of Muhammad, the leader of one of the Abrahamic religions and an unquestionably important historical figure. Despite Dr. Prater providing her own trigger warning before the class that Muhammad would be shown, a Muslim student objected to her decision and lodged a complaint that resulted in the nonrenewal of her adjunct contract. Dr. Prater’s lawsuit against her former employer is pending.
The resolution offends academic freedom and would have chilled classroom speech. At a time when America’s young adults report more anxiety than ever before, preemptive academic strikes would have had a policy backing. The final sub-resolution says, “Be it finally resolved, students who choose to opt-out of exposure to triggering content will not be penalized, contingent on their responsibility to make up any missed content.” If the missed content is what would have triggered the student, how would the student make it up without learning it and becoming triggered? As President Pollack said, “Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is . . . essential to our students’ intellectual growth.” It is an unpleasant reality that racial and ethnic violence have existed in much of human history. In order to understand human history, from the Umayyad Caliphate’s conquest of the Iberian Peninsula to the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, a student must confront these phenomena.
ACTA has called on Cornell’s leadership to take concrete steps—like adding a free speech module at freshman orientation and seeking intellectual diversity in faculty hiring—to protect free expression on campus. President Pollack’s decision to veto Resolution 31 is a good step, but there is much more left to do.