There has been some discussion this week about trigger warnings. The Urban Dictionary defines trigger warnings as a piece of text ‘[u]sed to alert people when an internet post, book, article, picture, video, audio clip, or some other media could potentially cause extremely negative reactions (such as post-traumatic flashbacks or self-harm) due to its content.’ Feminist blogger Jill Filipovic expands on this:
Trigger warnings, and their cousin the ‘content note’, are now included for a whole slew of potentially offensive or upsetting content, including but not limited to: misogyny, the death penalty, calories in a food item, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, Stand Your Ground laws, drones, homophobia, PTSD, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, talk of drug use, descriptions of medical procedures, corpses, skulls, skeletons, needles, discussion of ‘isms,’ neuroatypical shaming, slurs (including ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex (even consensual), death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, scarification, Nazi paraphernalia, slimy things, holes and ‘anything that might inspire intrusive thoughts in people with OCD‘.
A lot of the commentary on this has been at great pains to deny that the subject needs to be discussed. Via Laurie Penny, California student Bailey Loverin says that ‘A Rutgers student encouraged trigger warnings for literary works’ but that ‘his idea never left the school paper’s opinion page’ and concedes that ‘A task force of administrators, faculty and students at Oberlin suggested professors use trigger warnings’ but that ‘students and teachers were already tackling these concerns and have tabled the policy.’ So that’s okay. Over at HuffPo, Soraya Chemaly writes that ‘In most cases, no one is saying professors cannot teach texts or show videos. Nor do warnings imply some sort of apology for lessons to follow.’ Great! Nothing to see here. It’s also true that this is happening in America where many campuses have actual formal speech codes which isn’t the case in this country.
Or maybe there’s more to this. According to Filipovic, Oberlin actually recommended trigger warning Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, because ‘it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.’ The Rutgers student, Philip Wythe, proposed triggering The Great Gatsby, Mrs Dalloway and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her, arguing for passage-by-passage warning: ‘Professors can also dissect a narrative’s passage, warning their students which sections or volumes of a book possess triggering material and which are safer to read.’ Surely some bright kid at Amazon is as I write working on some kind of content control app for the Kindle that pixellates out the explicit parts of Hollinghurst or Rabelais, demanding a password you can never remember. And why is it the really good books that have been singled out? Surely supermarkets could slap big stickers on the latest Tony Parsons, warning the gentle reader that ‘This book contains potential triggers for tedium, irritation, incredulity, disorders of the nervous system and kidneys.’
And how back do we care to go? If you look at all the blood and trauma there is in Shakespeare, Jonson, Dickens, Maupassant, Rimbaud, Nabokov – there’s little there that would survive contemporary scrutiny. That, of course, is what makes people angry – the idea of judging ancient classics by contemporary codes. But there is more than that. We think of the world as a place where all the taboos have been kicked over, when the reality is that so much has been done before, and done better. There is also that anything can trigger anything. (Remember, for example, the way that certain smells yank you back to a certain place and time.) I once met a man who had episodes of psychotic depression to the extent that if he saw a yellow car in the street ‘it was like the car was saying, you’re a coward, you’re a coward.’ My old friend, poet Sian Rathore, quipped that ‘I’m putting a trigger warning on the world.’
College is a place where you grow up, and one of the things you learn is that the world is not always a safe place. To make literature safe. What an available temptation. But a safe literature won’t prepare you for an unsafe world. And isn’t it a condescension to all of us to conceal the evidence of this fact?