Commentary Magazine


Topic: trigger warnings

I Need a Trigger Warning on Trigger Warnings

I have to admit, the first time I heard about trigger warnings, I thought they were a joke. In short, trigger warnings assume that students are so infantile that they cannot handle classroom discussion or themes in great literature that push them beyond their comfort zone. Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (about whose work I previously blogged here), discusses trigger warnings in Freedom from Speech, his new Encounter Broadside booklet:

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I have to admit, the first time I heard about trigger warnings, I thought they were a joke. In short, trigger warnings assume that students are so infantile that they cannot handle classroom discussion or themes in great literature that push them beyond their comfort zone. Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (about whose work I previously blogged here), discusses trigger warnings in Freedom from Speech, his new Encounter Broadside booklet:

In May 2014, the New York Times called attention to a new arrival on the college campus: trigger warnings. Seemingly overnight, colleges and universities across America have begun fielding student demands that their professors issue content warnings before covering any material that might evoke a negative emotional response…. By way of illustration, the Times article pointed to a Rutgers’ student’s op-ed requesting trigger warnings for The Great Gatsby, which apparently “possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”

Lukianoff, a critic of the warnings, explains that “trigger warnings…are generally billed as a way to help those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious mental-health condition—before reading the type of material that any college student should expect to encounter on any college campus.” US News & World Report Debate Club” tackled the issue; it became one of its most popular subjects. Reading the defense of “trigger warnings” is a [trigger: may be troubling to Parkinson Disease sufferings, epileptics, and those currently being electrocuted] head-shaking experience.

Here’s the latest example of trigger warnings in the news, courtesy of a student op-ed in the [trigger: may be upsetting to those who scored below 2150 on their SATs and so couldn’t get into a B-list Ivy or had too much sense to waste their money] Columbia Spectator demanding trigger warnings for Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s been almost 2,000 years since he penned his masterpiece, and generations of students [trigger: may be troubling for those who have a phobia about math]—millions upon millions—have read his mythological and poetic epic without suffering [trigger: may be troubling to those who have suffered mental breakdowns] mental breakdown. But perhaps the current generation is different. Either they are more sensitive than any who came before them, or they have succumbed to “crazy chic,” where mental health becomes something to shun while mental hypochondria becomes a badge of honor. Reading Ovid is not the same thing as sending a [trigger: may be distressing for anyone who doesn’t believe politics should trump etymology] Womyn’s Studies professor to an Andrew Dice Clay concert.

Perhaps I started this post with a snarky attitude, and for that I am [trigger: would be upsetting to psychopaths who lack emotion if they didn’t lack emotion] sorry. But, I’ve come to recognize the logic behind trigger warnings. Therefore, a modest proposal: All trigger warnings should have a trigger warning so that no one who has experienced or fled from a repressive society might suffer post-traumatic stress reminding them of the authoritarian, Orwellian oppression from which they fled. Millions of people in the countries which comprised the Soviet Union, as well as in China, Cambodia, and Eastern Europe, not to mention tens of thousands of people in Iran, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Eritrea have lost loved ones or spent time in prison/re-education camps for not abiding by the state’s determination of what they should think and believe. Trigger warnings, even if well intentioned, might remind them of this oppressive and sometimes lethal political correctness and cause undue stress. Accordingly, in order to protect the mental well-being of those who value liberty, intellectual freedom, and oppose censorship, perhaps it’s time to agree to put trigger warnings ahead of trigger warnings to ensure that no one is inadvertently stressed out by the decline in mental and intellectual maturity and the infantilization of society which trigger warnings represent.

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Trigger Warnings

Conservatives are having a field day with the latest nonsense to come out of academia, trigger warnings. These are meant to warn people that certain subject matter that might be troubling to them will be covered in a course. Movies and television have long had rating systems to warn of violence, foul language, nudity, etc. And I see nothing wrong with that.

But do college professors have to warn students that The Merchant of Venice involves anti-Semitism or that All Quiet on the Western Front is about warfare, or that the history of Africa will refer to colonialism? Is it possible that students matriculated at respectable colleges might not already know that Shylock is a Jew or that Gatsby isn’t a card-carrying feminist? Alas, the answer to that is yes. But even so, are they so delicately constructed that encountering anti-Semitism in a play written more than four hundred years ago might cause significant distress?

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Conservatives are having a field day with the latest nonsense to come out of academia, trigger warnings. These are meant to warn people that certain subject matter that might be troubling to them will be covered in a course. Movies and television have long had rating systems to warn of violence, foul language, nudity, etc. And I see nothing wrong with that.

But do college professors have to warn students that The Merchant of Venice involves anti-Semitism or that All Quiet on the Western Front is about warfare, or that the history of Africa will refer to colonialism? Is it possible that students matriculated at respectable colleges might not already know that Shylock is a Jew or that Gatsby isn’t a card-carrying feminist? Alas, the answer to that is yes. But even so, are they so delicately constructed that encountering anti-Semitism in a play written more than four hundred years ago might cause significant distress?

Jonah Goldberg also points out a contradiction:

And what a strange madness it is. We live in a culture in which it is considered bigotry to question whether women should join combat units — but it is also apparently outrageous to subject women of the same age to realistic books and films about war without a warning? Even questioning the ubiquity of degrading porn, never mind labeling music or video games, is denounced as Comstockery, but labeling “The Iliad” makes sense?

It is a madness that will pass, I’m sure, as the academy undergoes the wrenching changes that will undoubtedly come in the next 20 years, for the 20th-century model for higher education is in terminal collapse. But meanwhile, this latest idiocy reminds me of a long-ago joke when movies were first being rated: “To some, it is the simple story of a boy and his dog. For others it is something more. Rated G for those who think it is a story of a boy and his dog. Rated X for those who think it is something more.”

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