I take censorship seriously. As I've argued before, the idea of banning books is so galling to me that I can't pretend to be objective about it.

So when I first heard people from various walks of life — comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, presidential candidates and even university professors — clamoring about how the younger generation's sensitivities were stopping them from speaking their mind, I got nervous. Anne Rice, certainly one of the writing world's more original thinkers, wrote: "I think we are facing a new era of censorship, in the name of political correctness ..."


Throughout human history, seemingly minor censorship has been a reliable precursor to more serious crackdowns in free thought and action. Is that what's happening now? Are "trigger warnings" — the practice of alerting students, or more widely, a listening or watching audience, that certain difficult subjects are coming up — keeping students from facing up to the difficult realities of life?

As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic, they see this new type of language policing as not only limiting free speech but also ultimately hurting the very people who are demanding it on their campuses — simply because it shields them from difficult ideas.

"The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable,” Lukianoff and Haidt wrote. This shielding, they posit, may be linked to the high rate of mental illness found on college campuses today, and they make a convincing argument.

I don't see enough evidence linking trigger warnings and the like to mental illness, but still, is more attention to oppressive, offensive language making kids less able to deal with the less-sensitive "real world" after they graduate? If not in terms of mental illness, could political correctness be hurting them in other ways?

What counts as censorship?

Certainly Lukianoff and Haidt detail some outrageous stories of students who have complained of sensitivities, like the student who was found guilty of racial insensitivity because he was carrying an (anti-Klan) book that had an image of Ku Klux Klan rally on the front of it. And there are plenty of other examples that seem to prove the supreme thin-skin-ness of students today.

But it's not as if these student complaints exist in a bubble. In any large system or during any election year, it's never difficult to find the "silly example" for any issue to bolster your point, which in the end doesn't really prove a whole lot. Consider, on balance for the story above, all the incredibly racist, over-the-top sexist and homophobic language that still occurs on campuses today. The stories of people denied housing due to their skin color, or paid less because they are gay far outnumber the political-correctness gone awry stories, and there's a lot more empirical evidence for the former.

The idea behind trigger warnings is to prepare people for material that may be upsetting — not to censor or eliminate the material. That notice, for example, could give someone who had been raped advance warning if that subject were going to be discussed, giving the person time to figure out if they could handle the discussion or not. But some people posit that trigger warnings lead to avoidance of material altogether, and therefore, they are soft censorship.

At least some teachers say giving warnings hasn't changed their teaching. As Colby College professor Aaron Hanlon writes in The New Republic, "The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus." Hanlon still teaches what he always has — he just lets students know about the concept first. Besides, he says trigger warnings aren't all that common anyway.

Case in point: My partner is a law student. He told me about a class during his first year of law school in which a warning was issued because they were going to be discussing a rape case. I read the warning because I was curious. It was an email saying that the discussion was going to cover rape in a legal context and that when asking questions or discussing it in class, everyone should be aware that some people in the class would have experienced that crime in their own lives. They also invited any student to have a one-on-one conversation with someone who had experience talking about the subject and wanted a more in-depth victim's perspective. It sounded pretty unobjectionable to me — but that's what a trigger warning is.

But there is another side to this issue, not concerning the person who wants to avoid a topic, but the who wants to address it fully.

There are many students who want to speak up when they feel offended. Are students so wrong to fight back ? I was a high school and college student during the 1990s, I remember a similar outcry against political correctness. It was during that time that the N-word was hotly debated, and we even had a forum on race at our school. One of the most instructive parts of my high school career was the day that everyone at my very racially mixed school stood up and said what they thought about race, sharing their words and feelings about the latter on our school's stage. It was genuinely amazing, and hearing what my black and mixed-race schoolmates really felt was seriously enlightening.

Did I change the way I spoke after that forever? Yes, because I'd heard from the people who had been offended and hurt by others' words, and why they felt that way. You can't get any more real than that.

The benefits of having your voice heard

Gay rights activists march in St. Petersburg in 2013. Gay rights activists march in St. Petersburg in 2013. (Photo: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

Changing how you behave after hearing from people who are different from you seems like one of the best points of being human. That's not censorship; that's compassion.

New Zealander Byron Clark made this point brilliantly when he developed an app that converts the term "political correctness" to "treating people with respect," based on a Tumblr quote by Neil Gaiman:

"I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase 'In these days of political correctness…' talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, 'That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.'"

Maybe students aren't learning to be oversensitive, but instead are learning to raise their voices when they see something they think needs changing. They are, of course, going to make mistakes with that at times. That's the point of education — not always getting it right and learning from your mistakes. But overall, isn't standing up for what you believe to be right a good thing — even if you sometimes get it wrong?

Maybe this ongoing argument over what is and what is not politically correct is completely healthy. The meanings of words change over time. Perspectives change.

It wasn't so long ago that the idea of gay marriage being legal in the U.S. seemed like a pipe dream. Society changes, and so does what's OK and what's not. Which doesn't mean that we should just accept all claims made under the veil of sensitivity. We should keep questioning and paying close attention to see if political correctness butts up against real censorship. But so far, I'm seeing people in previously marginalized groups getting their voices heard. Sometimes those things can be hard to hear, but they should be heard.

With the perseverance of political correctness, we've seen the rise of gay rights a much more serious consideration of rape and many other positive, more inclusive moves by society. So far, so good.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Are 'trigger warnings' censorship or a display of compassion?
Calls to change the way we talk about certain subjects has comedians, professors and politicians crying foul.