Fortress of Wisdom -- Or Cocoon of Ignorance?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Meghan Daum writes of the latest fad in academia: the "trigger warning".

... Originating on certain feminist, self-help and social activist blogs, trigger warnings are meant to inform readers that the ensuing material deals with subjects, such as war or sexual violence, that might upset those suffering from post-traumatic stress related to those issues.
She notes the guffawing this will elicit from certain quarters, but not without asking her readers to take a good, hard look at themselves:
Liberals stay away from Fox News. Conservatives shield themselves from MSNBC. We choose to live in particular neighborhoods or regions in part because we want neighbors who share our values. We rant away on social media, but we're usually just talking to people who already agree with us.

We call that an echo chamber, but isn't it also a way of living inside one big trigger warning? How much difference is there, really, between refusing to read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (a trigger targeted novel at Oberlin) because it deals with troubling racial and religious issues and refusing to listen to opposing views that might make you angry? [minor format edits]
Daum goes on to risk being accused of advocating her own cocoon when she adds that, "Given the choice between Fox or MSNBC, we'd be better off skipping both and reading a good book instead." But what makes a book good -- or even better than watching the news? And what is wrong with choosing to live among people who share our values? (I don't think Daum herself has taken any of the necessary steps to move into a prison any time soon.)

Wisecracks aside, I think Daum is urging us to ask the right kind of question. If I read her correctly, she is cautioning us that emotion alone is no guide to action, but she seems to run out of steam shortly after. One can also counter with another good question: Can't emotional responses to certain things be appropriate? And that question leads us directly to the one underlying her column, which is, "By what standards should we evaluate our sources of information or commentary?"

Daum is right that the misuse of mere emotional responses, particularly those of young and still-developing minds, can impede exposure to information or opinions that can challenge and help develop an intellect. However, some things offend because they are, by any reasonable standard, offensive; and some things are garbage that is unworthy of extensive consideration. The young need to learn the difference, and perhaps should spend some time picking through some trash. The not-so-young have no room for smugness, however: If you cannot explain why something angers you (or elicits any other emotion), it is worth taking a closer look. The difference between a fortress and a cocoon is that the former is designed to allow a look outside, and can either repel invaders or admit reinforcements. The latter provides only the illusion of safety.

The Daum piece brings to mind some comments by Ayn Rand on the subject of "open" vs, "closed" minds, particularly the third alternative Daum seems to be grasping at:
 What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an "open mind," but an active mind—a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically. An active mind does not grant equal status to truth and falsehood; it does not remain floating forever in a stagnant vacuum of neutrality and uncertainty; by assuming the responsibility of judgment, it reaches firm convictions and holds to them. Since it is able to prove its convictions, an active mind achieves an unassailable certainty in confrontations with assailants--a certainty untainted by spots of blind faith, approximation, evasion and fear.
Do you live in a cocoon or a fortress? It is disheartening that so many "educators" seem intent on luring the young towards cocoons than helping them build fortresses. But at least they -- and we -- can all introspect, and change ourselves for the better, if need be.

-- CAV

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