Trigger Warnings: The New Normal?


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Across the country, colleges have been receiving student requests to put “trigger warnings” on books in their syllabi. What is a trigger warning? As outlined in a guide from Oberlin College, they seek to remind teachers and members of a classroom that students “have lives outside the classroom,” lives which may include, or have included, instances of trauma, oppression and privilege, such as sexual assault, PTSD, racism, sexism, classism, or ableism.

As Soraya Chemaly of the Huffington Post explains, “The idea of trigger warnings started in feminist spaces because experiences with, for example, sexual and domestic violence, are so common that it made sense, out of compassion, to warn participants before revealing graphic descriptions of incest, rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm and suicide.”

Understandably, the empathy and respect which were the foundation of trigger warnings became appealing enough that students tried to spread the warnings outside of these specific spaces. Before students expressed an interest in applying the warnings to books, the first nationally-mentioned issue of “triggering” involved the statue of a man clad in his underwear, which was installed outside at Wellesley College. Hundreds of students wrote in, demanding that the statue be removed, citing “concerns that it ha[d] triggered memories of sexual assault amongst some students.”

Months later at UC Santa Barbara, a professor destroyed signs of anti-abortion protesters depicting images of aborted fetuses, because as a pregnant woman, she explained that the posters triggered fear in her. After she was arrested, students across the campus signed a petition calling for the university to put more restrictions on “trigger-inducing” content.

Now we find ourselves in a situation where students want books to be labeled to prevent potential trauma. The Merchant of Venice? Slap a label on Shakespeare’s play for “instances of anti-Semitism.” Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway? Deals with suicide. These are just a couple of books which are proposed to be labeled. What about Crime and Punishment? What about The Great Gatsby? Elie Wiesel’s Night? Beloved?

I appreciate the good intentions at the heart of trigger warnings. I think that it is imperative to discuss the content of books in a classroom before reading if the material is particularly “triggering.” But the operative word there is discuss. Difficult material, when handled at its best by conscientious teachers and readers, opens up an avenue for discussion. A label effectively halts a discussion, and if it does not entirely halt it, it changes the discussion entirely. It would be a travesty, as well as a tragedy, if the greatest works of our canon were reduced to out-of-context definitions of their most “traumatic” contents.

Are there appropriate situations for students to choose not to read material? Absolutely. We all have lives outside of the classroom, and if a student feels that the material is too traumatic for them, they should always be able to choose whether or not to engage with said material. But that is a personal choice, one which should not be influenced by mass labeling.

This is a hugely important moment in history, because trigger warnings are just one tiny half step away from censorship (if that). They would change the whole landscape of universities, giving advocates of censoring material a toehold which would only spread. As outlined in the NY Times article “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,”
“Marc Blecher, a professor of politics and East Asian studies at Oberlin and a major    critic of trigger warnings at Oberlin, said such a policy would have a chilling effect on faculty members, particularly those without the job security of tenure.
‘If I were a junior faculty member looking at this while putting my syllabus together, I’d be terrified,’ Mr. Blecher said. ‘Any student who felt triggered by something that happened in class could file a complaint with the various procedures and judicial boards, and create a very tortuous process for anyone.’”

To look on the bright side, this could be an exciting opportunity for our young people today. The push to incorporate trigger warnings shows an increasingly developed sensitivity to the personal histories of others, an empathy which could really bring communities together. Yet trigger warnings are not the way to build connection or start conversation. I am reminded of the truly inspiring American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Statement, which I will copy here for you:

“1. It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.
Creative thought is by definition new, and what is new is different. The bearer of every new thought is a rebel until that idea is refined and tested. Totalitarian systems attempt to maintain themselves in power by the ruthless suppression of any concept that challenges the established orthodoxy. The power of a democratic system to adapt to change is vastly strengthened by the freedom of its citizens to choose widely from among conflicting opinions offered freely to them. To stifle every nonconformist idea at birth would mark the end of the democratic process. Furthermore, only through the constant activity of weighing and selecting can the democratic mind attain the strength demanded by times like these. We need to know not only what we believe but why we believe it.

2. Publishers, librarians, and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea or presentation they make available. It would conflict with the public interest for them to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.
Publishers and librarians serve the educational process by helping to make available knowledge and ideas required for the growth of the mind and the increase of learning. They do not foster education by imposing as mentors the patterns of their own thought. The people should have the freedom to read and consider a broader range of ideas than those that may be held by any single librarian or publisher or government or church. It is wrong that what one can read should be confined to what another thinks proper.

3. It is contrary to the public interest for publishers or librarians to bar access to writings on the basis of the personal history or political affiliations of the author.
No art or literature can flourish if it is to be measured by the political views or private lives of its creators. No society of free people can flourish that draws up lists of writers to whom it will not listen, whatever they may have to say.

4. There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression.
To some, much of modern expression is shocking. But is not much of life itself shocking? We cut off literature at the source if we prevent writers from dealing with the stuff of life. Parents and teachers have a responsibility to prepare the young to meet the diversity of experiences in life to which they will be exposed, as they have a responsibility to help them learn to think critically for themselves. These are affirmative responsibilities, not to be discharged simply by preventing them from reading works for which they are not yet prepared. In these matters values differ, and values cannot be legislated; nor can machinery be devised that will suit the demands of one group without limiting the freedom of others.

5. It is not in the public interest to force a reader to accept the prejudgment of a label characterizing any expression or its author as subversive or dangerous.
The ideal of labeling presupposes the existence of individuals or groups with wisdom to determine by authority what is good or bad for others. It presupposes that individuals must be directed in making up their minds about the ideas they examine. But Americans do not need others to do their thinking for them.

6. It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians, as guardians of the people’s freedom to read, to contest encroachments upon that freedom by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large; and by the government whenever it seeks to reduce or deny public access to public information.
It is inevitable in the give and take of the democratic process that the political, the moral, or the aesthetic concepts of an individual or group will occasionally collide with those of another individual or group. In a free society individuals are free to determine for themselves what they wish to read, and each group is free to determine what it will recommend to its freely associated members. But no group has the right to take the law into its own hands, and to impose its own concept of politics or morality upon other members of a democratic society. Freedom is no freedom if it is accorded only to the accepted and the inoffensive. Further, democratic societies are more safe, free, and creative when the free flow of public information is not restricted by governmental prerogative or self-censorship.

7. It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression. By the exercise of this affirmative responsibility, they can demonstrate that the answer to a “bad” book is a good one, the answer to a “bad” idea is a good one.
The freedom to read is of little consequence when the reader cannot obtain matter fit for that reader’s purpose. What is needed is not only the absence of restraint, but the positive provision of opportunity for the people to read the best that has been thought and said. Books are the major channel by which the intellectual inheritance is handed down, and the principal means of its testing and growth. The defense of the freedom to read requires of all publishers and librarians the utmost of their faculties, and deserves of all Americans the fullest of their support.

Yes, the intentions of trigger warnings may be good, but we have to acknowledge the danger of going down this road. Where will it end?

Citation shout-out to the NY Times article, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm” by Jennifer Medina, published on May 17, 2014.

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