Monday, December 22, 2014

Fragile Law Students

Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk reports that the young generation's fear of hearing unpleasant things is having an impact on how we teach law:
But my experience at Harvard over the past couple of years tells me that the environment for teaching rape law and other subjects involving gender and violence is changing. Students seem more anxious about classroom discussion, and about approaching the law of sexual violence in particular, than they have ever been in my eight years as a law professor. Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering. Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.
I wonder what will happen to my course on the Early Middle Ages when I have to stop talking about potentially traumatic stuff. I would have to leave out Roman treason trials, Barbarian conquests, human sacrifice, self-mortifying monks, Viking raids, epidemic disease, the rape of Boudicca's daughters, and drinking cups made from human skulls, just for starters. There won't be much left.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I'm somewhat reminded of a strip from Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson.

"I say a day without denial is a day you've got to face. From now on, I'm not going to think about anything that's unpleasant."

"Isn't that a pretty self deceiving way to go through life?"


"I'm not going to think about that."

The world has some pretty ugly aspects to it, and I've always felt it was the responsibility of the individual to cope with reality, and not expect the world to censor itself purely to suit the individual's sensibilities. As much as I or anyone else might be disgusted by something, is it not ultimately self deceiving to refuse to face and accept the facts of reality?

It's not even as if rape and sex crimes are at all new in any way, either. If anything, they're in decline, with our modern society having both greater resources for dealing with them, and a freer and more open cultural atmosphere regarding sex than ever before in this country. Fewer sex crimes occur in the present day, and of those that do a greater number are reported and prosecuted. It's still far from ideal, obviously, but compared to even a mere generation or two ago, it's undeniably significant progress.

So why the recent increased sensitivity to the subject? Is it the fact that it's becoming less absolutely tabboo to discuss? Where previously such events were swept under the rug completely, now they're receiving greater visibility and that means some people are flinching away reflexively, as they've always been able to avoid such uncomfortable discussions in the past?

Yet there's more at work here than just discussing rape itself. As Suk mentions, the sensitivity is bleeding over into unrelated topics - such as students asking teachers not to use utterly innocuous and centuries old language like "violate the law". While there's definitely something to be said for respecting the past traumas of one's students, surely it is only a recent development that the onus should be placed upon the teacher to hedge their language, rather than on the student to simply not let their personal condition interfere with their instruction?

It's one thing for a professor to use more accurate or politically correct language to avoid inherent biases - for example using the term "Romani" over "Gypsie" to more properly reflect their culture and identity, or referring to the "European Middle Ages" over the "Dark Ages" to promote a less Eurocentric world view. But to avoid common, everyday language used in complete isolation from any traumatic or offensive meaning? Surely asking someone to hedge themselves in that way while instructing a class of dozens purely to accomodate a single person's overly sensitive or easily offended psyche is unreasonable and unrealistic?