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Who's afraid of social justice? 

On trigger warnings, free speech and universities.

Alex Khasnabish is an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Mount Saint Vincent University. He also directs the Radical Imagination Project (with Max Haiven). You can find him at @AKhasnabish and @rad_imagination.
  • Alex Khasnabish is an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Mount Saint Vincent University. He also directs the Radical Imagination Project (with Max Haiven). You can find him at @AKhasnabish and @rad_imagination.

I’m a university professor and I don’t often give trigger warnings in my classes. My decision to use them or not isn’t ideological, it’s contextual. Even though I’m the instructor and the one with the PhD, the classroom doesn’t belong only to me. Students have responsibilities to me and each other; I’m also accountable to them. That means taking seriously that people are products of diverse and sometimes deeply traumatic experiences. It means recognizing violence, exploitation and oppression are not accidents, but the outcomes of structured inequality. It means acknowledging the university isn’t some perfect, unbiased place ruled by reason, but a complicated institution tied to powerful interests.

So why do some professors and administrators not only argue against the use of trigger warnings but publicly denounce them, and those who advocate for them? Rather than having a thoughtful, respectful and nuanced discussion with those working on a variety of social justice initiatives within the university, these critics up the ante. They frame their increasingly shrill objections to trigger warnings and other attempts to make the university a more socially just place in terms of a righteous crusade in defence of “free speech,” “academic standards” and even “Western civilization” itself. So what’s really at stake here?

For these righteous defenders of the whitewashed ivory tower, “academic freedom” and “free speech” are absolutes belonging only to that special class of people holding PhDs. Tellingly, these defenders of the academic mission are notably absent from broader struggles against state and corporate surveillance and censorship, even as they stridently denounce the fallen state of the university as a result of the machinations of a whole cast of “social justice warriors”—from feminists to Indigenous people. Despite the rhetorical emphasis on freedom, this is a viciously reactionary, conservative politics that bemoans a golden age lost to the unwashed rabble at the gates. Much could be said about the gendered, racialized and classed dynamics at work here.

Renouncing informed and open discussion about any given initiative, these academic missionaries caricature those concerned with social justice as “cupcakes,” “toddlers” or “thought-authoritarians,” belying their anxiety about losing their power. Interestingly, these crusaders are conspicuously silent in the face of the real crisis of post-secondary education as the university is systematically defunded by the state and hijacked by corporate interests at the cost of the very critical inquiry they pontificate so loudly about. If these concerns were animated by a principled commitment to free speech, critical inquiry and the university as a free and open space, the vitriol of these academic crusaders would surely extend to attacks on basic democratic freedoms aggressively advanced by governments and corporations. Crusaders for “academic freedom” who militate against those they deride as social justice warriors never spare a breath for how research and teaching within the university is constrained and channeled by powerful, moneyed actors who seek to advance their own set of interests.

Perhaps we can dispense with the charade that this debate is about trigger warnings, academic standards and free inquiry, and talk about what’s really at stake. The arguments speak for themselves: This crusade is about the self-serving defense of power and privilege, the delegitimization of social justice struggles and the rationalization of enduring injustice and inequality.


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