Here’s a theory I’m working on living by: if a stupid thing gets tons of traction online and in print, and everybody and their mother is leaping on it giving their side of the story every single day, there’s really no call for me to write about it. I have the common sense to see when I’m wasting time, effort, and keystrokes. I really do. But then my Sunday newspaper beat me over the head with the millionth op-ed thinkpiece about how trigger warnings on college syllabi are the literal end of the world, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
I think it’s probably fair to mention that a solid 80% of my
bubbling resentment annoyance comes from the snarky, disrespectful tone these articles are dripping with. I have no problem with people disagreeing with me. But if you’re going to overuse the same “Trigger Warning: Thinking Ahead” or “Next Step To Saving Millennials From Anything Bad In The World” tropes, I’m going to call you out on it.
Point one: you do realize that what you’re doing is making fun of people for having serious and negative reactions to upsetting experiences. Which is a really charming personality trait, and I’m sure you have tons of friends because of it.
Point two: that’s not what trigger warnings are for.
That said, here are five reasons why trigger warnings are not the end of the world. From a millennial who’s not afraid to think, mind you, and who is completely aware that I’m not living in the Hundred Acre Wood. Sarcasm and snark kept to a minimum.
1. They Do Not Affect You Unless You Want Them To
This is my go-to reasoning for so many issues that just shouldn’t be issues. Are you planning on reading college syllabi and restricting your course schedule because you’ve had serious painful responses to reading or speaking about certain events or situations? (I doubt Glenn Beck or Jim Norton are planning on it.) Then trigger warnings have nothing to do with you.
You are inserting your opinions and your values in the lives and personal choices of others. In your own families, in your own houses, in your own reading practices, you are more than welcome not to talk to your children or your friends about potentially upsetting material in their daily lives. The public education system is not the playground for your individual choices.
2. Trigger Warnings Are NOT The Same As Censorship
Apparently I need to point this out, because a stunning percentage of op-eds I have seen on the subject equate it to a Fahrenheit-451 scenario. The syllogism, apparently, runs like this:
- Trigger warnings mean flagging objectionable content.
- Flagging objectionable content means designating things that are bad and sinful.
- Designating things that are bad and sinful means censorship.
- And censorship means throwing books into an enormous pyre and howling at the moon.
Note – I’m sorry. The snark simply couldn’t be restrained. I exaggerate slightly.
But that’s not what a trigger warning is. A trigger warning is the same, essentially, as those screens from the Motion Picture Association of America that appear before each and every new movie hitting theaters.
This, in fact, is exactly what’s at stake. If a college course will deal with extreme violence, sexuality, nudity, rape, incest, trauma, mental illness, or that kind of thing, students have every right to be forewarned. This is not the same as removing the material from the syllabus. Students are not asking to burn every copy of A Clockwork Orange from off the shelves. The request is to let students who might be dealing with legitimate physiological responses around sexual assault (not an unrealistic suggestion, as 1 in 4 college women and 1 in 10 men will experience some kind of unwanted sexual contact while on campus) know that there might be some bumpy roads ahead, and to take care of themselves accordingly.
I would open the question to those opposing trigger warnings for college classes: how do you feel about eliminating the practice of rating films? What are the differences in your logic? I’d be happy to have that conversation.
3. No, We Can’t Warn Against Everything… But That Doesn’t Mean We Can’t Warn Against Anything
A more well thought-out response to trigger warnings, in my opinion, is that triggers can take different forms for everybody. A smell, a certain tee-shirt, a stretch of campus sidewalk, any of these things can spark a negative reaction in a certain person. I agree with this. My triggers, as I’ve talked about on this blog before, are mine, and unique to me. I don’t expect anyone to warn me when a lengthy discussion about, say, a certain golf course fifteen miles from my high school arises. Although I’d be very surprised if there were great works of literature written about that golf course.
Yes, warning against everything that can spark a negative reaction is unrealistic. But does that mean that all warnings, of any kind, under any circumstances, are impossible and should be thrown out? I’d argue not. Jon Stewart has an excellent bit on the apathy toward gun reform, which though of course not at all the same context expresses the same “throw out literally everything with the bathwater” approach. Shouldn’t we be able to make mention of the relatively universal, very obvious mentions of potentially traumatic material, even if we can’t hit everything?
4. Very Little Will Actually Change
Yes, this may be speculation. I am not frequently consulted for large changes in the public education sector. Shocking as it may be, I’m just a blogger with a handful of opinions (a huge number of which are strong ones about Hemingway, but I digress). But all this outrage against “the corroding of the younger generation’s understanding of the harshness of reality” and “the loss of valuable life lessons when students skip anything that makes them think about unpleasant things” seems out of proportion to what is actually at stake here:
A bullet point on a college syllabus warning students that this course contains graphic descriptions of rape, incest, sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, etc.
A bullet point, guys.
Not burning books. Not a post-apocalyptic society in which librarians are prey to a pack of illiterate, armed children roaming the streets. A bullet point.
I took a French course this past winter at my university on feminism and literature in Francophone Africa. It was a fascinating course, it was challenging, and I’m glad I worked through it. It also featured eight books on the syllabus, of which seven described rape, incest, abuse, or prostitution in some capacity. Would I have taken this course had I known about that aspect of it? Yes. Would it have been good to know beforehand, especially if I had had a history of sexual violence (which, statically speaking, someone in that room probably did)? I would think so.
Point is, the class still exists. We’re still in it. We’re just not taken off guard.
5. We Already Use Them
Remember when you were in school and, before turning on a film about the Holocaust or putting up images of the My Lai Massacre, your teacher would say, “I’m about to show you something that might be upsetting. If you need to put your head down or go into the hallway for a minute, go ahead and do that”?
That’s a trigger warning, guys.
It is literally no different than what is currently getting the media’s panties in a Gordian knot.
So can we turn down the sensationalism and talk about this rationally, please?