05 February 2016

Fighting for Free Expression

[Last fall’s issue of Censorship News, the newsletter of the National Coalition Against Censorship, contained two articles about current struggles for the freedom of expression in U.S. society.  One is an aspect of academic freedom, the apparent proliferation of so-called trigger warnings in university course descriptions; the other is in the realm of artistic expression, the rise in charges of “cultural appropriation” by an imperialistic society.  As readers of ROT know by now, I consider myself a First Amendment absolutist: with the few well-defined and accepted limitations, we should be allowed to say, write, or depict pretty much anything we want to—as long as we’re then willing to accept the consequences.  (The First Amendment doesn’t protect anyone against public opprobrium or, more significantly, counter-speech.)  So it won’t be surprising that I stand with NCAC on these issues, and for that reason, I’m posting the two CN editorials on my blog.  ~Rick]


[The following article is republished from the Fall 2015 issue of NCAC’s Censorship News (No. 123).]

Survey reveals a complex picture: threats to academic freedom are not just about political correctness.

If the headlines are correct, college students everywhere are demanding professors provide so-called “trigger warnings” to flag material that might make them feel uncomfortable, and in some cases to allow students to avoid the material. If this is happening widely, the free speech implications are enormous: A broad range of works, from a documentary about sexual assault to an historical account of slavery, could be considered ‘triggering,’ along with the possibility that many professors would steer clear of potentially controversial work.

But how prevalent are these demands? Is a resurgent tide of political correctness threatening higher education, or are the media jumping to conclusions?

To shed some light, NCAC worked with the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association this spring on an online survey of their members. While the survey is not scientific, the over 800 responses we received offer a birds’ eye view of the debate over trigger warnings, and the pressures on instructors.

The survey finds that formal university trigger policies are extremely rare: Less than one percent of respondents say their schools have them. But there is abundant anecdotal evidence suggesting that something is going on. It appears to be a bottom-up phenomenon: Students make complaints to individual professors or administrators, and instructors—many of whom are reasonably nervous about job security. As one survey respondent put it, “After teaching a course for the first time, a student complained in the anonymous evaluation. Ever since, I verbally include a trigger warning at the start of each semester.” Fifteen percent of respondents reported that students had requested trigger warnings in their courses, while over half reported that they had voluntarily provided warnings for course materials, with 23 percent saying they have offered them ‘several times’ or ‘regularly.’

So who is doing the complaining? In much of the media commentary, the focus is on left-leaning students using trigger warnings to chill speech they find offensive. One widely-read essay on the subject was titled, “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” While this is certainly happening, and many respondents reported sensitivities to content depicting rape and sexual assault, the survey paints a more complex picture. Contrary to conventional thinking, warnings are sought by both conservative and liberal students. “I used trigger warnings to warn about foul or sexual language, sexual content, or violence in order to allow our very conservative students to feel more in control of the material,” wrote one instructor. Another teacher was aware of “religious objections to nude models in studio courses” and “homoerotic content in art history.” Another teacher noted the use of trigger warnings “because some students were upset by the realization that certain artists were homosexuals.”

Another common theme is that it is impossible “to be able to predict which topics will be problematic for students, or will ‘trigger’ a response.” “I’ve had students want pretty detailed and specific trigger warnings for, well, everything...,” including violent imagery in a horror film class. Reported complaints concern spiders, indigenous artifacts, “fatphobia,” and more. Many respondents draw a distinction between ‘trigger warnings’ and course or content descriptions. The latter are widely accepted as ways to convey information about the scope, substance and requirements of a given course. As many instructors have pointed out, offering students information about course materials does not necessarily flag content as disturbing or offensive, or offer students an opportunity to avoid it, but simply provides an explanation about what material will be taught.

The strongest findings in the survey are that instructors believe that trigger warnings, if widely used, would threaten academic freedom and inquiry. Nearly half of respondents (45 percent) think trigger warnings have or will have a negative effect on classroom dynamics; on the broader question of academic freedom, 62 percent see a possible negative effect.

Those who oppose warnings say they reinforce taboos, infantilize students, “tend to impede conversation,” “stifle meaningful discussion,” and send a message to students “about what it’s ok for them to get upset about.” In contrast, supporters say they build trust and “create a positive classroom environment,” show respect for the “individual needs of students,” create “a positive and safe space for dialogue,” prepare students “to engage with the material in meaningful ways,” and prevent them from feeling “blindsided.”

The survey revealed that many instructors are deeply concerned about their students’ wellbeing, and how best to fulfill the mission of higher education. And the demand for trigger warnings may reflect a desire by students to be more engaged in their education and their communities, which has positive aspects. However, the trick is to ensure that such an interest is not expressed in ways that preclude discussion, debate, and even disagreement.

What is a trigger warning?

[From the National Coalition Against Censorship website’s “NCAC Report: What’s All This About Trigger Warnings?” (http://ncac.org/resource/ncac-report-whats-all-this-about-trigger-warnings).]

For purposes of the survey, trigger warnings were defined as “written warnings to alert students in advance that material assigned in a course might be upsetting or offensive.  Originally intended to warn students about graphic descriptions of sexual assault that it was thought might trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some students, more recently trigger warnings have come to encompass materials touching on a wide range of potentially sensitive subjects, including race, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism, torture, and other topics. In many cases, the request for trigger warnings comes from students themselves.”

[A report on the survey, including a breakdown of the results, appears on NCAC’s website at http://ncac.org/resource/ncac-report-whats-all-this-about-trigger-warnings.

[I’ve posted previous articles on ROT concerning freedom of expression.  See, for instance, “The First Amendment & The Arts,” 8 May 2010; “The First Amendment & The Arts, Redux,” 13 February 2015; “The Return of HIDE/SEEK” with Contributions from Roberta Smith (New York Times) And NCAC, 4 January 2012; and “How To Free Speech” by Lee C. Bollinger (Washington Post), 23 November 2015]

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[The following article was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Censorship News (No. 123), the newsletter of the National Coalition Against Censorship.]

Can a group claim ‘ownership’ of particular cultural traditions? And what is the effect on artistic expression when groups seek to protect certain ideas or practices from being absorbed or co-opted by the dominant culture? These questions arise as we seem to be in the midst of what one writer called a “new war on cultural appropriation,” with protests and social media campaigns forming against what is seen as inconsiderate or even offensive cultural “theft.”

Cultural appropriation is generally understood to be the use of imagery or expressions from another culture without permission, often in ways that misrepresent or stereotype a particular group. The term is generally applied to the taking of minority or indigenous artistic expression by dominant culture. What if the intent is not to steal but to honor particular traditions? And how does appropriation square with artistic and cultural traditions that heavily rely on borrowing and tribute to forge new modes of expression?

In March, a class of art students at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) built a wooden teepee to create a space for connectivity, engagement, and reflection. But complaints from several indigenous students led to its prompt removal; to them, the project represented unauthorized appropriation of their culture. The art students, after meeting with the protestors and the college president, agreed to remove the structure ahead of schedule and to hold a campus forum to discuss the controversy. Coming only after the removal—a kind of admission of guilt—the forum seemed stacked from the beginning.

In July, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts planned to celebrate Claude Monet’s 1876 portrait “La Japonaise” by introducing “Kimono Wednesdays,” where museumgoers could try on an authentic replica of the kimono in the painting. But a small group launched a protest, arguing this was a form of racist “yellow face…that would compel members of the public to participate in Orientalism.” The protesters, employing rhetoric about the need to “decolonize” the museum, brandished signs next to the painting with slogans like, “Try on the kimono: Learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist today!” One protester likened the display to exhibits “where visitors would come see people in cages brought from Africa.” One writer who supported the protests argued “this was not cultural exchange, but the exotification of an object for publicity.”

After initially standing by the project, the museum apologized and discontinued “Kimono Wednesdays.” But even that did little to satisfy the critics, who argued that the displaying of the kimono was still “inappropriate without proper mediation and acknowledgement of the Orientalism of cultural appropriation of dress.”

The journalist Cathy Young, writing in the Washington Post, referred to this dynamic as the “new war” on appropriation. And while the rhetoric deployed against those perceived as appropriators can be quite severe, the decisions as to what counts as “offensive” appropriation rather than the age-old cultural give and take can be difficult to discern. As Young put it, the “fine parsing of what crosses the line from appreciation into appropriation suggests a religion with elaborate purity tests….When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding.”

So how can artists or institutions present culturally specific material without being accused of colonialism? The Metropolitan Museum of Art faced similar dilemmas with a show on Chinese fashion. The exhibit, “China: Through the Looking-Glass,” did not avoid discussions of Western appropriation of Chinese iconography and expression—it made appropriation the focus of the show itself. The Met even presented the argument that the exhibit could represent a “rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East.” While that interpretation could be contested—and it was—the museum’s decision to confront the issue of appropriation head-on was commendable. It provides a model for other institutions and artists facing similar dilemmas.

[The Washington Post article by Cathy Young mentioned above is “To the new culture cops, everything is appropriation,” posted on 21 August 2015 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/to-the-new-culture-cops-everything-is-appropriation/2015/08/21/ed30de1c-4740-11e5-8ab4-c73967a143d3_story.html.

[Regular readers of ROT will recall that I’ve run into something of a “cultural appropriation” buzz saw on this blog.  When I published “‘May You Be Blessed With Light’: The Zuni Shalako Rite” on 22 October 2010, I raised the ire of several Commenters who felt I shouldn’t have written about the Shalako ceremony at all.  (I have also posted articles on the Navajo healing rites, the Plains Indian Ghost Dance, and the Taos Puebloincluding the San Gerónimo Festival) without complaint.)  Those Comments are still posted for the interested ROTter.]

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