Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, Bias Reporting: The New Micro-techniques of Surveillance and Control

A singular orthodoxy has infiltrated the discursive parameters of U.S. and other universities and colleges. This orthodoxy now constitutes the ethical vocabulary of academia. Adopted from feminism, anti-racism, and LGBTQ theory and practice, the language, doctrines, and mechanisms of this orthodoxy now dominate academia’s policies, procedures, and handbooks. The terminology has become the vernacular among the swelling ranks of administrators, especially the relatively new cohort of chief diversity officers, directors of diversity, associate provosts of diversity, assistant provosts of diversity, diversity consultants, and so on and so on. I refer not merely to the orthodoxy of “diversity,” but in particular to “diversity” initiatives as they are currently administered, using a particular set of policies, procedures, and mechanisms: trigger warnings, safe spaces, bias reporting, and the like.

While ridiculed by media outlets, and, at least where trigger warnings are concerned, disavowed by the American Association of University Professors, nevertheless, American colleges and universities are dominated by this ethos and its collective techne. At the University of Chicago for example, the Dean of Students, John (Jay) Ellison, Ph.D., announced  (to the great chagrin of some faculty and many students):

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own…

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Yet, the same university has also assembled and maintains a Bias Response Team,” and “urges anyone who has experienced or witnessed a Bias Incident to report it to the Bias Response Team.”

As it usually happens, any perspective that deviates from this “academic” orthodoxy – or any opposition expressed by faculty members in reasoned commentary or debate about the premises of the creed and/or its techniques – is virtually proscribed in advance. Whether or not they happen to be progressives, left communists, or radicals of another stripe, potential critics rightly fear being figured as right-wing reactionaries opposed to diversity and the confrontation of oppression. Any complaints or criticisms, they fear, would be peremptorily dismissed, and likely circulated among other faculty members within their own universities or in academia at large as gossip, subjecting the critic to ridicule and disrepute.   Discipline & Punish: T... Michel Foucault Best Price: $3.88 Buy New $9.97 (as of 11:55 EST - Details)

Indeed, despite the fact that a new form of policing has been surreptitiously introduced into academia at large, one would be hard-pressed to find a single article, essay, or book that subjects the entire administratively controlled apparatuses of “diversity” to any kind of real scrutiny. While innumerable articles have appeared on one or another of these topics (mostly on trigger warnings and safe spaces), no one has explained the structural provenance nor analyzed the probable effects of these developments as a whole. Nor has anyone provided a theoretical or historical framework with which to understand them.

Ironically, perhaps, the most clearly appropriate critical theoretic for grasping the structural origins, as well as the social and political implications of this new largely “academic”1 development, can be found within the ambit of the postmodern theory itself. The new mechanisms adopted and adapted by academic administrations clearly and incredibly mirror those described in a text widely read within humanities and social science studies courses throughout American universities and beyond. Indeed, it is a wonder that no one has, until now, applied this critique to the mechanisms of this academic creed. Faculty members, graduate students, and even many undergraduates, who have had even the slightest brush with trends in the humanities and social sciences, will know to what I refer here: Michel Foucault’s brilliant 1975 book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Particularly uncanny is the resemblance of the academic mechanisms in question to the “microphysics of power” described in the third chapter, “Panopticism.”

In this riveting essay, Foucault effectually describes the transmutation of power from the pre-modern to the modern period. Adducing Jeremy Bentham’s architectural model of the “Panopticon,” Foucault proffers what at the time was an utterly novel understanding of modern “discipline” and control. The new disciplinary mechanisms that Foucault discusses replace the earlier corporeal forms of punishment, such as quartering people in public, or branding them with the crimes they supposedly committed, and so forth. While the Panopticon was first introduced by Bentham as a model of prison, asylum, and school reform, the forms of surveillance and discipline to some extent prefigured by the Panopticon and in some sense preceding it, for Foucault had already metastasized beyond the prison system, becoming the general means of discipline and control in so-called “democratic” societies.

The Panopticon itself is a circular building, in which its subjects – inmates, patients, students, etc. – are arrayed in cells surrounding a central tower. The subjects can be seen at any time by a guard, who may (or may not) occupy the central tower. The captive subjects cannot see into the tower, nor can they see each other. Likewise, they are never certain whether or not they are being observed:

Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. We know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy. By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions – to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide – it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap (Foucault 200).

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