Why Pull The Trigger?

by Jessie Roberts

Support is building for “trigger warnings” on works of literature that address sensitive topics like rape or war (NYT):

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans. The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them.

Drum fails to see the endgame here:

I’m not especially sympathetic to the trigger warning movement, which seems more appropriate for explicitly safe spaces (counseling groups, internet forums, etc.) than for public venues like university campuses. But put that aside. What I don’t get is what anyone thinks the point of this is. You’re never going to have trigger warnings in ordinary life, right? So even if universities started adopting broad trigger policies, it would accomplish nothing except to semi-protect sensitive students for a few more years of their lives, instead of teaching them how to deal with upsetting material.

Lowry scoffs:

The problem with the trigger warning as conceived by its most fervent supporters is its presumption that people can be harmed by works of literature; that every student is a victim of something and on the verge of breaking down; and that ultimately students have to be protected from anything departing from their comfort zones.

It is profoundly infantilizing. If someone can’t read Crime and Punishment (warning: includes scenes of near-madness, violence, sexual exploitation, cruelty to animals, and smoking) or Hamlet (warning: includes poisoning, drowning, stabbing, and intense intra-familial conflict) without fear of being offended, he or she should major in accounting.

Jason Diamond suggests the critics are being too callous:

[N]o matter how silly you might judge a trigger warning on a copy of The Great Gatsby to be, the mocking tone comes off as victim-shaming, whether it’s intentional or not. Of course, it takes two to tango, and the pro-trigger warning side, in some cases, could do a better job presenting its arguments. The Oberlin College draft guide mentioned in the Times piece, which asked professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabi, doesn’t make it clear how trigger warnings from the left are different from the right’s book-banning. …

At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to figure out what’s best for them, and we are better if we support them when they need it — but, perhaps, attend to individual readers’ needs rather than make assumptions about what will upset certain groups. At the very least, we need to have more serious conversations about not just trigger warnings, but the causes behind them. And we should strive to make those conversations as compassionate as possible.

Mary Elizabeth Williams argues that over-using the phrase “trigger warning” has diminished its meaning:

[I]t’s thrown around so much it easily becomes pointless and infantilizing. So explain what you’re teaching. Justify it. Have conversations and ask questions and set a tone that inspires complex thought. Be sensitive and respectful. Just take more than two words to do it. Don’t define a work solely by its most dramatic and upsetting elements, removing its context and giving it an automatically negative taint, because it’s hard to approach a work with an open heart and mind when the most important thing you know about it going in is that it’s going to be “triggering.”

Ari Kohen is on the same page:

[I]n my human rights courses, I’ve often told students that I’ve assigned something that might be upsetting to them, that they should be aware of the content before they begin, and that I’m available to speak with them about the topic at any time. … Reading about torture, genocide, or sexual violence can be deeply disturbing — and not only to people who have experienced these abuses; it’s important to let students know what awaits them in the week’s reading so they can prepare themselves both emotionally and intellectually for the challenge. Not surprisingly, I’ve found that discussions on these challenging topics are more thoughtful when students were warned that their reading might be emotionally taxing.

Another idea:

[G]enerate the warnings and make them available on request and online. Make them easy to find for anyone who needs them — but underplay them. I think it’s good that people with nut allergies can find allergan notices by reading side-panel labels on packaged foods. I think it’s also good when the rest of us find them easy to ignore. That’s the right balance.

Previous Dish on trigger warnings here.