Author: Stewart Justman

Trigger Warnings and Mass Psychogenic Illness

Contrary to the tradition of free inquiry, many college students now demand the suppression of ideas they find offensive. As if to raise the stakes by transforming the issues in play into medical ones, many also claim that such ideas traumatize them. Implying as it does that offensive material doesn’t just insult decency or pollute the public realm but wounds the very psyche of those exposed to it, the term “trauma” as deployed by the critics of free inquiry has indeed taken the argument to a new level. What are we to make of the contention that students are so vulnerable that the syllabus of a lit course should carry a “trigger warning” to the effect that their psyches might suffer damage merely as a result of the reading? A medical argument calls for a medical reply. Suppose rumors begin to circulate in a small town that the insulation stuffed into local walls and attics contains a toxic substance. Literally surrounded by toxicity, the residents begin to report symptoms like nausea, headache, dizziness and poor …

When “Believe the Victim” Backfires

A few years ago the University of Montana, where I was teaching, found itself at the epicenter of a national crisis of campus rape. Even as the U. S. Department of Education directed colleges and universities to lower the level of evidence necessary for conviction in sexual assault cases, the Department of Justice censured the lax investigation and prosecution of such cases at UM in particular, in effect making UM an example to the nation. But not only was UM under the eyes of federal monitors. DOJ made it known that it would also be looking closely into the handling of allegations of rape in the city of Missoula, of which UM is part. In this charged atmosphere, and with the national press looking on as well, two members of the UM football team—one of them none other than the quarterback and team captain—were charged with sexual intercourse without consent. The respective incidents took place two years apart. In the first case, where the crime was reported to the police fifteen months after it occurred, …