Trigger Warnings vs. Warnings

It seems ludicrous that the ubiquitous "trigger warnings" are spreading from the internet to college syllabi, but I submit that what's ludicrous is the "trigger" part, not so much the warnings.  Putting "trigger warnings" everywhere makes it seem as if many of us are on the verge of an uncontrollable meltdown. All it would take is being exposed to one blog post, or even a two line tweet.  On the other hand, take the "trigger" out of "trigger warning" and you just have "warnings," which do seem appropriate in some cases.  I don't have to see my students as utterly fragile and constantly "triggerable" to worry that in depth exposure to certain topics could be seriously problematic for some of them.  I do issue warnings sometimes. For example, in my class on the meaning of life I issue a warning because of the amount of time we spend talking about death, suicide, and meaninglessness.

I learned a few years ago that these warnings really are important when a student of mine had herself hospitalized for suicidal impulses on the eve of my meaning of life midterm, which covered the articles on death we'd been reading for several weeks.  "Death is nothing to us..."  No, that's not a claim you should be immersing yourself in when you're deeply depressed and having suicidal thoughts.  It was all to the good that I'd told the students at the beginning of the semester (verbally and in writing) that they should seek counseling if they found our topics disturbing, and that the course might not be appropriate for all.

But that's not to say I'm going to issue "trigger warnings," flagging every mention of rape, abortion, or whatever.  Not only does this insult students' emotional intelligence, but it's impossible to know what course content to watch out for.  Long, long ago I taught an ethics course with the usual frequent references to drowning children--Peter Singer's pond, James Rachels' bathtub, and a few more.  After the class was all over, a student told me her baby had drowned within the last year.  I am very sorry to have caused her additional pain, but I don't think we can look at every student as "in recovery" like this student really was, nor can we imagine what all students may be recovering from.


Circumcision Ethics

The simple case against circumcision says the procedure harms children (since the costs exceed the benefits), and parents shouldn't harm their children.  To make this case, you've got to stress the pain of the procedure plus the lost sensitivity. And then compare the benefits: lower risk of various problems, advantages of conformity (if most other boys are circumcised), etc.  This is a tricky calculation, so it's understandable that some opponents of circumcision would want to go another route.

The open future of an uncircumcised boy
For example, in a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Robert Darby says circumcision violates a boy's right to an open future.  In other words, boys shouldn't be preempted from making this choice for themselves when they're older.  But why must they make this particular choice for themselves?  In Joel Feinberg's seminal article on this right, he doesn't just hold up an open future as a self-evident good (because the more possible futures the better), but says an open future is good because "self-fulfillment" requires making your own choices.  I find that term rather opaque, but "self-fulfillment" is basically "self-actualization," or "becoming who you are," in Nietzsche's phrase.  If your parents choose your career for you at age 10, you may wind up a lawyer when the real you is a doctor.  Using that reasoning in the present context, the opponent of circumcision has to say newborn circumcision can stop a boy from coming into his real self--if it so happens it would have been truer to the boy's self to have his foreskin.  

A compelling argument? I can certainly see that newborn surgeries sometimes conflict with later self-fulfillment--for example, in the case of female "circumcision" and surgery for inter-sex states.  But is it really self-defining to have or lack a foreskin?  For the vast majority of men, I would think not.

Perhaps the best case against circumcision simply has to do with sovereignty and self-determination, where the body is concerned.  My body is my birthright, not to be irreversibly tampered with except in cases of true medical necessity.  It may not be terribly harmful to circumcise and may not get in the way of self-actualization, but it's an intrusion upon the boy's private territory, without a good enough reason.  When all is said and done, this is the thought I find most compelling.


Enjoying gender

Today my class on procreation and parenthood discusses whether parents should foster gender differences in their children--reinforcing girlness in girls and boyness in boys.  There are lots of reasons to say No, but also some reasons to say Yes.  Here's food for thought from Alice Dreger:
While on the road a few years back, I met a stridently-feminist soon-to-be mom who pulled me aside to worry aloud about how she was going to raise her child. How was she going to keep this child free from gender expectations? Here’s what I told her: Gender isn’t just about oppression. It’s also about pleasure. We get pleasure from our genders. You will get pleasure from your child’s gender, and will sometimes delight in it the same way you will delight in your child growing and learning how to count. Your child will get pleasure from his or her gender. When we have sex, it is often in gendered ways—we enjoy sex as a woman with a man, or as a woman with a woman. How much more evidence do you need that gender can be joyfully delicious? Why oppress yourself and your child with your expectation that gender is always about oppression?
"You will get pleasure from your child's gender"... yup, it's true.  There are a lot of other good points in the article, though some will say she strawmans the social constructivists.