“Trigger warnings” have long been a staple of feminist discourse — a way to let people know, particularly, if a depiction of or explicit discussion of rape was about to take place, so as to let survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder remove themselves from the conversation if needed.
Now, though, there’s a movement afoot to bring “trigger warning” into everyday discussions — including college classes.
Are trigger warnings a sign we’re becoming too sensitive? Or are they the right thing to do? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the Red-Blue America columnists, debate the issue.
College isn’t for everyone. Neither is Christianity. Neither is Judaism. Neither is life in our increasingly frivolous postmodern age. “Triggers” are everywhere.
For example, if you aren’t comfortable with reading about murder, rape, conquest, human sacrifice, animal sacrifice and genocide, you probably shouldn’t read the Old Testament of the Bible — even though it’s on the required list of a couple of major world religions and most college humanities courses.
In fact, just stay away from books generally. Most great literature is bound to “trigger” some uncomfortable feelings, because any literature worth reading confronts uncomfortable questions and disturbing truths. Great literature will also delight and enlighten. But the reality is, most great literature isn’t “The Little Engine that Could” and “Skippyjon Jones.”
Liberal education — truly liberal education, an education that aims to prepare students to deal with a complex, diverse and sometimes hostile world — cannot abide “trigger warnings.” Liberal education isn’t therapy.
What we find on many university campuses today, therefore, is not liberal education at all. But there are still places — islands of free inquiry — where the liberal tradition survives.
Author and Baylor University humanities professor Alan Jacobs rejects the whole idea of trigger warnings as “hopelessly misbegotten.”
“If you want to be a good teacher, in any environment,” Jacobs writes, “you have to be willing to prepare your students for what you assign them.” Building a mutual sense of trust is crucial, but that trust is undermined with simplistic labeling.
“A list of troublesome ‘topics’ ... is an utter trivialization of all these matters,” he argued at his blog, “Text Patterns.” “Any teachers who think that they have met their moral responsibilities to students by loading their syllabuses with such tags — and any institutions who find such tags adequate — have grossly misunderstood what education is.”
Exactly right. When college campuses are fretting over how classroom content may contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder and undermine mental health, they’ve drifted far from their mission to spread knowledge of what the poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been said and thought in the world.” They’ve become giant, overpriced insane asylums.
Everybody, just calm down.
The binary nature of this column — Ben Boychuk takes a position, I usually take its opposite, hilarity and debate ensue — often reduces the number of options we discuss in public down to two. But the question shouldn’t be “trigger warnings or no trigger warnings?”
The better question is: How do we best approach sensitive topics? And the most sensible answer to that question is: It depends. Context matters.
Trigger warnings first emerged in feminist discussion groups, not because of namby-pamby oversensitivity, but because a number of people joining those discussions were rape survivors. Rather than offer up upsetting descriptions or discussions of rape — no matter how appropriate — the person initiating the conversation said, in essence: “This is what I intend to discuss and how I intend to discuss it. You’re welcome to walk away if you need to.” It was not an unreasonable approach.
It’s called knowing your audience. At bare minimum, it’s called being polite.
We have “trigger warnings” of all kinds placed throughout society. You probably think twice before taking your kid to a movie that’s rated R. You might even glance at the content descriptions on HBO — “Adult content” “Partial nudity” — before making a decision to watch.
One needn’t advocate trigger warnings to realize that few wise professors would ever push literature or art onto students without some preparation for what they’ll find inside. “Here’s the writings of the Marquis de Sade, kids! Good luck!” never happens. Such preparation may not rise to the level of trigger warning, exactly, but it does offer information and context — precisely what a good education is supposed to do, anyway.
One doesn’t have to spit on sensitivity to defend free speech, but neither is extreme deference required. Context matters, and so does a willingness to simply be respectful to each other. Why don’t we try that before we start inventing, or tearing down, new rules?
Reach Ben Boychuk at email@example.com, Joel Mathis at firstname.lastname@example.org.