Anatomy of a ‘trigger warning’ scandal
in The free speech wars
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The use of ‘trigger warnings’ has become a popular attack-line for right-wing critics of liberal academia in the ‘free speech wars’. Trigger warnings are regarded as a form of self-censorship by academics, who are either bullied by or pandering to their intolerant ‘snowflake’ students. In 2016 there was an abortive attempt by right-wing and libertarian commentators to engineer a trigger warning controversy in British academia. The author of this chapter was one of two academics targeted in this campaign, which included a series of hostile articles in forums ranging from the Spectator, Times and Guardian to Breitbart, Spiked and The Tab. The attacks focused on a brief content warning included in the handbook for a graduate-level course on the archaeology of modern warfare. The aim of this chapter is to offer a dispassionate account of the mechanisms of this manufactured scandal. Based on a close reading of twelve of the comment pieces about the course, it examines the subtle art of manufacturing outrage: rhetoric, omission, misrepresentation and fabrication; links with other ‘free speech war’ issues; and the network of individuals and organisations bridging the US and UK branches of this movement (e.g. Furedi père et fils).

The free speech wars

How did we get here and why does it matter?


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