Considering Trigger Warnings and Our Biggest Offense

trigger warnings

Even though it’s only been three years since I graduated from college, so much has changed. I read works like Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Cruse’s Stock Rubber Baby, and Keat’s “Leda and The Swan,” and engaged with my peers in heated discussions about these books with topics on rape, sexual exploitation, race, and bigotry. When we signed up for these courses, we were expected to read the works and participate in class discussions. Professors didn’t warn us of the content (okay, they may have offhandedly said that we’d be hating the world for a week) but they did provide a syllabus listing what we would be reading. If we wanted to know anything further, we’d research it. I went in blind on all my assigned readings, never knowing what I would have to talk about or how it would affect me until my eyes found the words lying on the page. No one challenged the material even if they didn’t agree with it, not in an academic setting anyway. So much as changed.

Trigger warnings, the term originating from the psychological term ‘trigger’ that dates as far back as World War I but found digitally in the back alleys of the internet on feminist forums, are devices warning of explicit sexual violence or graphic material contained in a piece of literature. Lately everyone’s jumped on the band wagon of inserting ‘TW’ before everything’s written, when in truth is excessive and thoughtless; yet in the academic setting, where students are taught critical theories and are exposed to unnerving content to prepare them for the ‘real world,’ using trigger warnings is tricky since professors never know what might trigger someone, but we’re now witnessing students opposing material that they deem offensive for whatever personal reason, thus, raising complicated questions about learning, cultural sensitivity, and censorship in colleges and universities.

The use of trigger warnings are exaggerated due to misinformed definitions and purposes. TW are devices that anyone can use but don’t necessarily apply to everyone. They’re intended to alert people who have undergone significant trauma and experience physical symptoms that hinder their daily activity. The confusion arises in people’s understanding of people who have suffered trauma; most, unless they’ve personally witnessed it, don’t believe someone could experience physical symptoms when the issue is mental. Although there are cases where someone will be unable to engage with the material due to the severity of the trauma, TW are implemented to better aid in a person’s recovery and shouldn’t be treated as a permanent evasive approach.  Gradual exposure to the content may help combat the physiological symptoms. Trigger warnings enable those to prepare themselves to partake in rational discussions versus having their own intense experience impair them.

While inserting ‘TW’ is mostly innocuous (but frustrating to see used incorrectly,) there are some people who abuse the intention behind them for their own reasons, creating a sheltered culture of intolerance and privilege. One recent example of this occurred at Duke University where some of the freshmen students objected to reading Alison Blechdel’s Fun Home as it compromised their Christian beliefs, but as Dianna Anderson wrote, “one is a physiological response; the other is a choice in the practice of religious belief.” The Atlantic released an article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which has been circulating and igniting the contentious debate of cultural sensitivity demonstrated in how much we apply TWs in our everyday lives or at how often we hear of students’ protests over written material. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write on the ostensible “movement…arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense,” and applying the term microaggressions, defined as the verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or. unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their. Although a dubious and perhaps an exaggerated claim, the article does point to some less than romantic ideas about academia.

From an economic standpoint, universities and colleges are places of business that try to maintain a constant flow of revenue; they can’t run on lofty ideals alone. Governing education falls more upon administrators than the professors and one of the factors influencing administrations are the students, i.e. the customers. If enough students ban together to have material removed from the course, then the administration, even when the students’ protest are unfounded, will more than likely submit and have the professors pick another topic, with the professors, afraid they might lose their jobs, do little to pushback. What’s arguably needed now is some pushback. Classrooms provide the appropriate context to discuss diverse and complicated issues. The academics aren’t a hodgepodge of obstinacy but a place fostering worldly perception of challenging ideas and reinventing ideas of culture. Having your own beliefs is acceptable but obstructive when absorbing the material that could possibly enlighten us.

I imagine I will continue to see stories pop up of students banning together to have a novel removed from class because it offends them—but that action is offensive in itself.  None of these works like the ones above are easy to talk about, but I absorbed them with the kind of necessary discomfort that we hold in us, a kind of vague unknowing feeling that sounds like a reluctant ‘maybe’ and scares us  from ditching the life map and driving. Staying in our comfort zone is safe but self-restricting stunts intellectual growth and maturity. We shortchanged ourselves and others.

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