Here is one that I imagine will be thoroughly unpopular around these parts: Why trigger warnings are a bad idea on college campuses.
To be clear, I think trigger warnings in online feminist spaces serve an important purpose. But something is lost when we use them in a college setting. A bit of why:
At Rutgers, a student urged professors to use trigger warnings as a sort of Solomonic baby-splitting between two apparently equally bad choices: banning certain texts or introducing works that may cause psychological distress. Works he mentioned as particularly triggering include F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The warnings would be passage-by-passage, and effectively reach “a compromise between protecting students and defending their civil liberties”.
But the space between comfort and freedom is not actually where universities should seek to situate college students. Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings don’t just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with “that’s triggering”. Students should – and do – have the right to walk out of any classroom. But students should also accept the challenge of exploring their own beliefs and responding to challenges. Trigger warnings of course don’t always shut down that kind of interrogation, but if feminist blogs are any example, they quickly become a way to short-circuit uncomfortable, unpopular or offensive arguments.
That should concern those of us who love literature, but it should particularly trouble the feminist and anti-racist bookworms among us. Trigger warnings are largely perceived as protecting young women and, to a lesser extent, other marginalized groups – people of color, LGBT people, people with mental illnesses. That the warnings hinge on topics that are more likely to affect the lives of marginalized groups contributes to the general perception of members of those groups as weak, vulnerable and “other”.
The kinds of suffering typically imaged and experienced in the white western male realm – war, intra-male violence – are standard. Traumas that impact women, people of color, LGBT people, the mentally ill and other groups whose collective lives far outnumber those most often canonized in the American or European classroom are set apart as different, as particularly traumatizing. Trigger warnings imply that our experiences are so unusual the pages detailing our lives can only be turned while wearing kid gloves.
There’s a hierarchy of trauma there, as well as a dangerous assumption of inherent difference. There’s a reinforcement of the toxic messages young women have gotten our entire lives: that we’re inherently vulnerable.
And there’s something lost when students are warned before they read Achebe or Diaz or Woolf, and when they read those writers first through the lens of trauma and fear.
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