Trigger Warning: all human experience.— Darinstrauss (@Darinstrauss) May 18, 2014
The New York Times has a story today about campus activists who are pressing colleges for trigger warnings:
Should students about to read "The Great Gatsby" be forewarned about "a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence," as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism -- like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "Things Fall Apart" -- have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?This issue splits the left: on Twitter there's a lot of liberal scorn, as well as equal scorn for the scornful (the pro-warning argument is that the notifications are small and easily ignored by people who don't need them).
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. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools....
My gut reaction to trigger warnings is negative -- and yet I see the appropriateness of being sensitive to survivors of war, sexual violence, childhood abuse, and so on.
I think I'm resistant because of the way trigger warnings are often done. Online, a trigger warning tends to precede content in a way that stops the presentation of that content dead in its tracks for a moment. It's a HERE BE MONSTERS sign everyone has to pass under before getting to the content.
And where trigger warnings are in place, there often seems to be a sort of mission creep. After a while, the warnings aren't just about the sort of material that might recall violent trauma a reader might have experienced; they're about, well, everything bad in the world.
This is why I avoid Melissa McEwan's Shakesville, which I used to read regularly. Go there and you'll see trigger warnings like this:
Seriously? For a post titled "Brown v. Board of Ed" you need a warning that it's going to discuss racism and segregation? And are these, and class warfare, actual psychological triggers likely to induce post-traumatic stress? Graphic depictions or descriptions of civil-rights-era violence, sure -- those might benefit from a warning. But there's nothing of the sort in the linked post. Why is a warning appropriate?
Ultimately, I think the prominent display of this sort of thing runs the risk of turning traumatization into the new gluten sensitivity. Yes, some people actually suffer post-traumatic reactions to certain content, just as some people actually have celiac disease and need to avoid gluten to safeguard their physical health. But gluten avoidance has become a food fad -- and putting a HERE BE MONSTERS frame around writing and art may become an academic fad, as more and more people express sensitivities they don't really have, or assume sensitivities in people who haven't actually expressed them.
My solution: generate 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 allergen 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.