March 7, 2019

LEUNG | Educating the American Mind

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The word “snowflake” is used to identify a person who has an inflated sense of uniqueness — a person with too many emotions and an inability to deal with opposing opinions. It has become a politicized insult by the political right to insult the left. Those targeted as “snowflakes” are seen as fragile, weak, easily offended and desperate for “trigger warnings” and safe spaces. While frequently used to insinuate and insult, it has been increasingly common for Trump protestors to hold up signs that say, “Damn right we’re snowflakes and winter is coming.”

College students seek emotional health by demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like, suggests an article in The Atlantic, which is actually detrimental for their education and mental health. The authors warn against trigger warnings and restricting speech because students must learn to live in a world that has a plethora of potential offenses. I approached the article with an open mind, as I was told it was well-written and worth the read. But by the end, I was merely frustrated.

The authors argue that trigger warnings and microaggressions are blown to proportions that prevent productive discussion. They tended to focus on the very extreme cases like a law student asking her professors not to use the word “violate” (in “that violates the law”) since it could cause students distress to defend their idea that students are reporting more emotional crises. The authors use the question “Where are you from?” — asked mostly to Asian Americans or Latinx Americans — to transition into an example of an installation being taken down at Brandeis University after Asian Americans found that it perpetuated microaggressions. Perhaps instead of viewing these people as “overly emotional,” we should ask ourselves why this question offended them in the first place?

As an Asian American, getting asked “Where are you from?” is infuriating. While it usually comes from general curiosity and isn’t ill-intentioned, it’s extremely alienating and assumes foreignness. It’s an “othering” question that seeks to define you and confirm presumptions about cultural identity. I usually respond with “Philadelphia,” in which the person says, “No, where are you really from?” as if they assume I can’t really belong here.

I distinctly remember an artist from China who came to my elementary school to give a presentation on his artwork. He did beautiful paper cutting. I was surprised, however, when the faculty invited me to have lunch with him without asking me any questions first. They had, in fact, assumed I could speak Chinese and would be able to engage with him. I couldn’t speak Chinese. He came from mainland China; my parents are from Hong Kong. While he spoke Mandarin, I could only understand Cantonese. I thought his artwork was stunning, but I didn’t have the connection with him my teachers hoped for. I didn’t understand his references. I was just like any other kid in elementary school who had been excited to skip class to watch his presentation.

Putting students in the box of fragility as people who need protection dismisses lived experiences. Those that continue to commit microaggressions and engage in hate speech should be taught why their language may offend and hurt others. Students, the article authors also argue, desire protection “from psychological harm.” They continue to say that the need for trigger warnings on campus has led professors to issue them before covering material that might create emotional distress for students. Classroom discussions, they write, are safe places to be exposed to incidental reminders of trauma.

As a university student myself, class is not always a productive or safe space to discuss issues — especially when we deal with our trauma. At Cornell, we come from various backgrounds and experiences and may have strong ideas on certain topics — or may not be able to relate at all. In classes in which students always fight to be “right” or get graded on participation, the classroom dynamic can become argumentative, competitive and unproductive. My friend was in an English class in which the professor told the students that they would be discussing suicide. My friend, who had lost someone very important to her, decided not to attend class and spent that day for herself, cherishing the memories she had with the person she lost. That decision was far more productive than sitting in class and discussing a subject many people could not relate to and might cause emotional distress. The classroom is not a place where you should be expected to relive your trauma.
We must be more aware of how we speak. It’s also a time in which polarizing, dividing talk has been used to strip individuals of their humanity. Recently, President Trump announced his plan to protect free speech on university campuses, threatening to cut off federal funding if colleges don’t allow for views across the political spectrum. Perhaps the article authors would have a changed their opinion in a political climate where speech has been increasingly isolating, harmful and destructive. Instead of complaining that this “new climate” of microaggressions and trigger warnings is being institutionalized and not preparing students for the real world, perhaps it is better to educate those who do not realize that their speech can be hurtful, divisive and unproductive. By disregarding the emotions of those who react to this kind of discourse, they are dismissing both the individual experience, as well as the collective one of many. It is important for students to engage in conversations that question their own biases and world views while respecting the reactions of those who have been asked “Where are you from?” far too many times — and who would, quite honestly, wish to never hear it again.

Gabrielle Leung is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gleung@cornellsun.com. Serendipitous Musings appears every other Friday this semester.