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

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