Trigger warnings/consumer activism

One of the points that Shulevitz makes—that trigger warnings and other kinds of student protections do not exist in the real world, by which she means the world of employment—is absolutely correct. Trigger warnings and safe spaces make known that the student is in a wholly different world from that of employment. But is it students or administrations who have defined the category of “student” as antithetical to “employee?”

[…]

But even here this logic does not only create this diametrical opposition; it also masks another. For what is back of this antithesis is the division of consumption and employment: students are increasingly defined as non-employees because they are increasingly defined as consumers. The voice that I hear in administrative acknowledgments of the validity of students’ demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces is not an echo of the Sixties but a variation on “the customer is always right.”

And is it, then, a surprise that those who are doing the most to press this small advantage are precisely those groups who, in US history, have most used consumer activism to press their civil rights and seek broader protections for themselves, namely, women and people of color? What if we were to re-name trigger warnings or safe spaces “boycotts?” Students—whether by intuition or by something more direct—understand that they are being treated as consumers; they are responding as consumer activists.

—Andy Seal, “Hardy Boys and Girls: On Undergraduates and Self-Infantilization”

Seal makes a shrewd point (and I highly recommend reading the entire article in order to appreciate its nuances). Taken a bit further, though, this analysis raises the question of whether resistance to the proliferation of “safe spaces” may also be a resistance to the instrumentalist market logic that threatens the humanistic mission of higher education. The case Seal makes implies that, either way, students are trapped in a much larger battle. One way to see that battle is that universities are forcing students to employ consumer activism because if they are primarily exploitable consumers, then that’s the only thing administrators will understand. Another way to see the battle is that if students and administrators are allowed to ensconce this logic at the heart of the university, many other ideals get tossed out the window. The “real world” for which students are being prepared is not only the workplace, but the public square, the private sphere, and the potential of the human imagination. One may (ideally) insist upon civility in public discourse without foreclosing “unsafe” topics and perspectives entirely. Even if that is not the goal of “safe spaces,” it is the effect.