Trigger Warnings

May 20, 2014

Everyone has been sharing this New York Times article about college professors and other educators providing students with warnings before the students delve into material that might be offensive or trigger unsettling memories. 

Listen, I’m a Hippie. I have a peace sign tattooed on my foot. I believe people should express themselves. I believe people should be whoever they are. I believe in justice and love and equality. But these people – these people calling for “trigger warnings” (a fully made-up term, not an actual thing) are too crunchy for me.

Life doesn’t come with a warning. If material is inappropriate for a certain age group, or people of a certain maturity level, then sure, warn them. (For example, you wouldn’t show a seven year old Pulp Fiction without some sort of warning, right?) But to warn people because a novel, one with agreed-upon literally and cultural merit, might stir up something painful? Please.

This sounds like the ethos of lawnmower parents, who are equally absurd. Sometimes in life, you have to deal with hardship. You have to deal with painful memories. You have to be made uncomfortable. It tests your mettle and, hopefully, you come out stronger. 

Moreover, one of the very reasons to continue to read and discuss in educational settings possibly upsetting material is to struggle with it; is to understand where we’ve been, where we are and how far we have to go. If you are distressed by what you’re reading, make that part of the discussion. You can always use the “my friend” trick if you don’t want to bring your personal life into the classroom, but grappling with these things is what makes us better people. Instead of coddling university students, why not help them get treatment for these traumatic events? They don’t need a warning – they need medical attention. (And if they actually don’t, then they’re just being dramatic.)

We should never shy away from intellectual debate. Shame on those sacrificing a robust education for many for the sake of a few people’s comfort. 



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