Trigger Unhappy: The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

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Clint Eastwood: no friend to political correctness.

Now that Clint Eastwood has waded into the morass of identity politics, our Trumpian transformation is complete. Per Eastwood’s rant, we are in thrall to “the pussy generation,” better known as millennials, and we’ve moved, generationally speaking, from “kick-ass” to “kiss-ass.” Eastwood protested:

Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.

And so the anti-PC backlash continues unabated, and so do the grievances — the white male grievances. Perhaps Pauline Kael was right 45 years ago when she noted that Eastwood’s film Dirty Harry was the kind of action picture that had “fascist potential.”

Haidt and Lukianoff’s advice: get over it.

It’s not that Eastwood’s remarks are surprising given Trump’s grotesque, ethnic antagonisms or the GOP’s longstanding tendency to dog-whistle on matters of race. No doubt Eastwood’s sensibilities were shaped by his formative years in white, Protestant America, and his youthful nostalgia is indeed haloed by privilege — white male privilege. Born in 1930, Eastwood’s demographic is the Trump campaign’s petroleum, and no propane is quite as flammable as the perceived authoritarianism of political correctness. At least since William F. Buckley, Jr., fired away at his secular socialist classmates in his God and Man at Yale, conservative battles against political correctness, especially on the university campus, have been at the center of the right-wing Kulturkampf.

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Last September in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, warned of a new threat: the wrath of the coddled, hypersensitive college student. Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at NYU Stern School of Business, and Lukianoff, a free-speech advocate, wrote of the purported censorship among so-called student despots. The piece generated the kind of buzz that befits our age of disunion, but the stir also engendered a much needed reappraisal of the readily maligned and frequently misunderstood concept of what’s commonly referred to as PC.

In melodramatic high dudgeon, the authors offered up a polemical broadside against a runaway, whiny, prickly culture where educators and administrators, fearing offense and recrimination, genuflect at the altar of emotional fragility. But make no mistake: Haidt and Lukianoff may labor under the guise of social science and psychology but seem to rely less on empirical evidence than on Rudyard Kipling.

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Panic at the Conservative Disco?

In the authors’ alarmist purview, “a movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” Restricting hate speech, a cornerstone of the PC movement, has morphed into something far more sinister. Historically marginalized groups are no longer content to simply challenge the Western literary canon. Nor are these aggrieved groups content to ensure that racial and ethnic slurs are relics of the past. Universities across America are now held hostage to “vindictive protectiveness” in which any thoughts or discussion deemed uncomfortable or offensive threaten the “safe spaces” of campus life and are worthy of condemnation, if not prosecution. Haidt and Lukianoff warn:

A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

One of the more durable myths among conservative thinkers insists that political correctness is bound to turn us all into the Stalinized pigs of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Haidt and Lukianoff do something grander: they link trigger warnings to censorship, and slyly conflate the sensitivity of mental health with the necessity of intellectual freedom. In sniffing at “left-leaning campus sensibilities,” the authors reveal the politics of their own biases, whether wittingly or otherwise. In sounding alarm bells about “trigger warnings,” “microaggressions,” and cognitive behavioral therapy, Haidt and Lukianoff insidiously wrap their own ideologically conservative view of freedom in the jargon of psuedo-psychology. In commingling trigger warnings with speech codes, the authors have advice for those who have suffered trauma or shame based on race, gender or otherwise: get over it.

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Haidt and Lukianoff pretend to be dispassionate observers of university life, but in ignoring the context of disadvantaged groups in American society, their argument is both historically tone deaf and ideologically biased. College life is not simply devoted to intellectual pursuits; it’s a crucial period of personal growth. For many students, academic life is akin to a sanctuary. It’s the first time students from various backgrounds, races, cultures and nations attempt to define their identity. Students whose own personal narratives have been ones of fear or marginalization can often assert their own identity for the first time, free from retribution or judgement.

No, PC is not turning us Stalinized pigs.

The world of ideas should no doubt be a “safe space,” yet not as Haidt and Lukianoff imagine it. An intellectual arena is at its most fertile when both students and professors serve as interlocutors for one another. Students don’t solely pursue higher learning to absorb information. To the contrary, intellectual growth arises from reciprocity; students of all backgrounds should be encouraged to employ skeptical modes of inquiry to challenge and to contest previously held customs, ideas, precepts and norms. A dialectic on racism, homophobia or sexism is as fraught as it is potentially explosive. As such, an acute sensitivity to people’s differences is less about emboldening victimhood than it is about acknowledging history.

Despite America’s changing demographics, most colleges are still largely white. And, inadvertently or not, Haidt and Lukianoff seem blinded by their own privilege. American notions of liberty, freedom and equality, on their face, can appear to be grounded in consensus. But the history for people of color and other demonized groups has haunted our ostensibly liberal polity since our founding — and complicated history isn’t simply erased via some political etch-a-sketch. The traumatic aftershocks of oppression demand a scholarly reckoning.

Previously demoralized groups begin the healing process when dominant belief systems and values can be questioned and challenged. Thus, a trigger warning doesn’t inhibit intellectual freedom but rather encourages it. Students alerted to potentially shocking or disturbing subject matter are better prepared to absorb a discussion, whatever the topic: rape or racial tensions, for example. Haidt and Lukianoff seem to recoil at the notion that disenfranchised groups may take offense at provocative discussions, but if we are to ameliorate historical grievances, shouldn’t those grievances be understood, not dismissed?

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Eastwood’s assault on “the pussy generation” belies the conservative backlash against PC.

As a concept, trigger warnings may sound like an over-the-top notion, but in actual fact they are no more harmful than warning labels. A trigger warning is just that: an advance notice that sensitive material may be discussed. Trigger warnings have nothing to do with speech codes. If anything, they achieve the opposite of what the authors argue; they encourage, rather than shut down, any discussions about potentially traumatic subjects. Sensitivity to trauma isn’t indulgent or a weakness. University campuses aren’t currently terrorized by anti-speech authoritarians, despite conservatives’ theatrical depictions. One of the more insidious right-wing tactics has been to diminish any claims to injustice so as to silence the voices of the oppressed. Women, African Americans and other groups are louder, perhaps, than they have ever been, if only to demand that a more expansionist view of history occupies the center, rather than periphery, of the historical narrative.

Are the thought police back in town? One might think so by reading Haidt and Lukianoff’s hyperbolic screed. Students aren’t asking for self-validation; they are asking for respect. Regrettably, these writers regard such respect as “coddling.” College is a microcosm of America, a nation still struggling to achieve its promise of emancipation, diversity and equality. Eastwood’s onscreen characters know a thing or two about triggers, too. So much irony that today’s gentle trigger warnings would amount to a full-out assault on his reactionary mind.

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Adam Epstein
Adam Epstein's theatrical productions have received 46 Tony nominations and garnered 12 Tony Awards, one of which Adam himself received as a producer of Hairspray in 2003. Adam's other credits include A View From a Bridge, The Crucible, Amadeus, The Wedding Singer and Cry-Baby. In the West End, both his productions of Amadeus and Hairspray earned multiple Olivier nominations and Hairspray was awarded a record 11 nominations, winning four, including Best Musical. An adjunct faculty member of NYU, Adam has also been a guest lecturer at Harvard, Columbia and the University of Miami. In the fall of 2016, Adam will be a graduate student in American studies at Brown University.