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The danger of devil’s advocacy

<ir="ltr">There are a lot of things they all got right: administrative power is scary, free speech zones are ridiculous, and the ability to pursue controversial arguments is tremendously important. Still, there seem to be a number of fundamental misunderstandings when it comes to trigger warnings, and quite a few things wrong with Jeff and Amna’s diagnosis of BRTs. Here are a some of the most important ones:

Devil’s Advocacy Does not Always Make Debate Better

Jeff and Amna’s article urges us to see “conversation between an evangelical student and a gay student on same-sex marriage” as the exact kind of “invaluable” conversation fundamental to a meaningful student experience. From the perspective of intellectual growth, they’re completely right: talking to people you disagree is an important way of developing your own viewpoints and testing them against the arguments of others. But there’s a lot more going on here. For a gay student, the issue of same-sex marriage is not merely an issue of intellectual discourse, it’s a matter of personal rights. Rhetoric to the contrary (e.g. “tradition dictates marriage as union between one man and one woman”) isn’t just a legal argument, it comes with the heavy implication that the mere act of being gay is an transgression.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty at stake for the evangelical student as well. After all, beliefs, especially religious ones, tend to be deeply rooted in our psyche and upbringing. Still, Christian identity, while perhaps reliant on Christian faith, is not reliant on homophobia. For the evangelical student, only ideas are being attacked, for the gay student, it is the an unchangeable and fundamental aspect of their identity.

Note that the topics chosen to serve as exemplars of “controversial debate” are never the most offensive. Gay marriage is still controversial enough to work as a palatable example of a right worth debating, can we say the same in other cases? Are we willing to see a debate between a white and a black student about the merits of American slavery as an “invaluable” “hallmark of a residential liberal arts campus”? These debates may be worth having, but only when the students whose humanity and rights are in question have chosen to enter into them.

Trigger Warnings and Exposure Therapy

There’s a pretty big misconception about trigger warnings that can be cleared up in a single sentence: censorship is a matter of top down control over what material gets to be published; trigger warnings are about individual control about what material people chose to expose themselves to.

Greg’s objection to trigger warnings is largely founded on the belief that people overcome trauma through exposure, and that cognitive distortions are corrected by seeing things as they really are. There really is serious psychological grounding to his claims: exposure therapy and CBT have achieved tremendous success in helping patients recover from depression, anxiety and even PTSD. The huge distinction that does have to be made is that these successes have been in a clinical context where the patient has chosen to enter into therapy, and where exposure is controlled by a trained psychologist.

He describes a process known as “habituation” in the exam “You might start by asking the woman to merely look at an elevator from a distance—standing in a building lobby, perhaps—until her apprehension begins to subside. If nothing bad happens while she’s standing in the lobby—if the fear is not “reinforced”—then she will begin to learn a new association: elevators are not dangerous.” So yes, exposure is good, but when it’s controlled.

BIRT is Flawed, but not in the Way you Might Think

In a recent letter from Sam Neubauer and Meg Crenshaw, the two describe perhaps the biggest flaw with BIRTs that Jeff and Amna never touched on:

“A bias incident is defined as “a behavior or act that harms, or carries the potential to harm, an individual or group, based on perceived or actual characteristics of identity.” Under this definition, saying “White people can’t dance” or “Men are stupid” get the same attention as incidents with a legacy of systemic oppression behind them. Therefore, “reverse racism” is included as a bias incident. We strongly recommend the BIRT Working Group develop a definition that is conditional upon a legacy of systemic oppression.”

Alternatively, we can imagine BIRT as a system that should be working specifically to help underrepresented college students. Prejudice against men, or prejudice against white people is still prejudice, but it’s not attached to a history of oppression, and it’s not attached to a systematic pattern of material harm.

BRTs are not Fatally Flawed

There are a couple points that I do absolutely want to stick to: devil’s advocacy has a time and a place, trigger warnings are about freedom not control, and prejudice against privileged groups is bad, but not in way that prejudiced against the oppressed is. And again, none of this is to say that Greg, Jeff and Amna don’t all have valid points. BIRTs have presented a tremendous danger at other schools, and have the potential to do the same at Carleton. Free speech, intellectual curiosity, and student resistance to administrative control are all under threat. But while BIRTs may be flawed, taking these flaws to be fatal based on what’s happened elsewhere is a denial of our own power for change and improvement. Instead of cowering in fear, we can take the advice of the writers before me and engage in serious debate for the sake of sharpening and improving our views. Instead of turning away and claiming a disastrous determinism, we have the option to work towards a better alternative. And that is worth talk about.

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