Letter to the Editor: Trigger Happy Censors at Smith?

Chris Pyle Mount Holyoke Professor 

Thanks to The Sophian for publishing a transcript of what Wendy Kaminer actually said in New York.  Now it is perfectly clear she is not a racist, but used the “n-word,” unexpurgated, to make a point about those caring souls who, in their effort to protect the sensibilities of students, violate free speech. The hyperventilating that followed Kaminer’s uncensored prose proves her point conclusively.

Imagine that Mark Twain had been invited to read some of his writings on campus, but that Kaminer’s critics discovered that he had used the “n-word” liberally in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”  What should the college do?  Disinvite him?  Ask him to tone down his remarks because they might traumatize someone?  Post “trigger warnings” all over campus?

The Sophian would publish Twain’s speech, but post warnings, like those that preceded the Kaminer transcript, declaring that “This author is guilty of ‘racism/racial slurs, sexist/misogynist slurs,’ and writes about ‘race-based violence.’”  Twain’s admirers might be offended by such prissiness, but that’s too bad. The Sophian has a moral duty to give its adult readers early warning of impending isms on it pages. Otherwise they might be shocked, like little children confronted by age-inappropriate messages.

Unnoticed in last month’s kerfuffle was Kaminer’s provocative suggestion: “colleges and universities should . . . fire almost all of the student life administrators.” Why?  Because they are the primary source of the patronizing idea that college students, especially women, are psychologically delicate souls, easily wounded by unvarnished prose. It is the duty of student life deans to create “safe spaces” for all students, free from words and ideas that might traumatize them (or anyone else).

These deans are direct descendants of Harriet Bowdler, the Victorian lady who persuaded her brother John, a publisher, to sanitize the great books so that they would be suitable for the fragile sensibilities of women and servants. As a result, it wasn’t until the 1950s that professors could find an unexpurgated edition of Shakespeare’s plays to assign to their students.

Kaminer is not the only critic of these well-meaning deans.  The American Association of University Professors rejects the “presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged” is both “infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”  The American Library Association, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Civil Liberties Union oppose content warnings for much the same reason that Smith professors once opposed Joe McCarthy’s censors who, when they weren’t removing books from libraries, stamped them with warning labels.

“When labeling is an attempt to prejudice attitudes,” the AAUP warns, it is a censor’s tool…If ‘The House of Mirth’ or ‘Anna Karenina’ carried a warning about suicide, students might overlook the other questions about wealth, love, deception and existential anxiety that are what those books are actually about.”  The AAUP additionally says, “Trigger warnings also signal an expected response to the content (e.g. dismay, distress, disapproval) and eliminate the element of surprise and spontaneity that can enrich the reading experience and provide critical insight.”

When President McCartney’s committee meets, it will struggle over nothing less than the soul of the college. Will Smith continue to be a liberal arts college for strong women, or will it become a therapeutic shelter for the easily offended?

  Professor Chris Pyle 

Professor of civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College