Trigger Warnings

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I never encountered the term until a fellow undergrad and frequent poster of feminist articles used it in a Facebook comment, something about sexual assault that “triggered” her. I immediately was dismissive towards its use, which I saw as a new term for being upset by something. Movements often create their own language to describe phenomena which already have names, but by doing so they sort of give new life to a concept. It’s not always a great thing, just something that happens.

It wasn’t until later that I realized its connection to feminists (which I consider myself) and specifically to sexual assault and rape. And then I began to hear discussions about trigger warnings in college syllabi. I thought that was silly like most people. Majority doesn’t make right, but I hadn’t heard a convincing argument for its implementation, and it seemed to be narrow in scope, to sexual assault and rape and,  weirdly enough, animal abuse. Most ridicule trigger warnings as a means of faint hearted, sheltered middle class students avoiding being shook out of their narrow world views. They take the argument ad absurdum, that it would be impossible to create trigger warnings for every possible situation and student, that it was tantamount to censorship. These seem like valid points, but they didn’t satisfy the dilemma for me.

The best case for trigger warnings that I heard was to protect the victims of sexual assault from having to relive the events by encountering it unknowingly in literature. But this is still a weak reason, and I don’t need to take the situation to the extreme in order to dismantle it.

In the Information Age, it seems reasonable that a student for which certain topics are too taboo to deal with, could do some research and choose courses in which these issues would not be brought up. A student averse to reading about violence against blacks might, for instance, not elect to take a class about slavery or early black literature. Of course, that student would miss the opportunity to be enriched by having the mind expanded, but that is their choice. Unless this person is so ignorant of history they don’t know how blacks are and were treated, this would be a reasonable burden to place on the student, which would not require trigger warnings, just a little thought. And if the student were already in a class where controversial material may be brought up, they can read about the books online to make sure they are free of potentially traumatizing stuff.

Another issue is literary work itself. The film and television industry self censors and applies ratings based on certain criteria. These in a way serve as trigger warnings. The question then becomes, do we want this for literature? Should authors include a page in the back which contains a list of potential triggers in the book? If we are going to extend this type of warning signs to college syllabi, then why not to the books themselves?

The reason which I most oppose trigger warnings is because of how narrowly they have been applied, that is, mostly to sexual assault. But why not “regular” violence or crime? A person can be traumatized by being mugged, or even beaten. Should acts of thievery or battery be included among trigger warnings? Or what about soldiers traumatized by war? Should Tim O’Brien’s work come with a trigger warning? What about victims of parental abuse? Should Angela’s Ashes be on a list of potentially traumatizing material? And further, just how can literature, a virtual existence, traumatize a real life? It can’t; only existence can.

The advocates of trigger warnings seem to place sexual assault as the most heinous and traumatizing experience a person can have. I would certainly never argue that it isn’t awful, but I likewise would not deign to suggest that it is worse than anyone else’s traumatic experience. Who would dare tell a soldier that their pain can’t compare, that it is lesser, than a rape victim’s, or vice versa? We cannot measure painful events and decide which ones are more important or worse. I don’t mean to be taken as equivalating all pains and experiences, but I want to show that we shouldn’t being telling other people which ones are worthy of traumatizing or not traumatizing a person, especially since all cases are unique, as are people’s responses. I understand why, for instance, rape jokes are unacceptable because we have a society, though a little better, which has belittled women’s traumas and dismissed them. But in order to finally give recognition to the problem of sexual assault and rape culture, it shouldn’t come at the expense of invalidating other pains. I notice that murder is conspicuously missing from the reasoning for trigger warnings, and yet there are relatives of murder victims who live in a world with literature which is filled with murders. Why is their experience not included in the umbrella of trigger warnings? And very importantly, what about the authors who want their story to be heard?

In this misguided attempt to accommodate, we gag ourselves. Not all people who use the excuse of trigger warnings are victims or survivors. Some just don’t want to be disturbed. But I also always believed that literature had a cathartic value, and that by finding one’s own experiences in the pages of a book, it can help you move beyond the pain. But I may be wrong in all this. We may be making mounds out of molehills. Trigger warnings could truly be useful for the victims of traumatic experiences. But I have to wonder who is calling for their introduction.

the boredom of drug use in literature

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In general, I feel the same way about drug use that I do about sex scenes in literature and cinema, the latter I may elaborate on in another post, but suffice to say that they far more often than not fail as plot devices and disrupt flow. Flashback and dream sequences are known to do the same. If they do not advance plot then they are worthless, and an entire story built around drug use tend to be nonstories. Drug use in itself is not interesting in the same way that eating is not inherently interesting.

What are good examples of drug use in literature and cinema (which, I should add, are driven by plot regardless of whatever examples you can name that run counter to this axiom)? Brave New World has soma to describe our need to anesthetize any pain we encounter. Pulp Fiction’s overdose scene is critical to the story. A Scanner Darkly utilizes the effects of drugs on the dissolution of identity as a parallel to technology’s same effect.

I bring this up because I’ve been reading Tao Lin’s Taipei, which is about disaffected Brooklynites who abuse prescription drugs because of their extreme disaffection and discomfort in the world. While drug use is essential to the plot, it makes for boring literature. This is because, again, drug use is not interesting in itself. Scene after scene of blurry and “vague” existence is not compelling (“vague” and “indiscriminate” become the operative words. About everything; time, thoughts), and any argument about how Lin is describing such dull lives is hollow, for a good writer should make anything interesting. There is no greater sin than to bore your reader. If Joyce can absorb my attention with the thoughts of a man as he shits, then why can this writer not say anything interesting about searching for meaning in life? No, Lin’s hero is too disaffected, too different for anything as common as that.

[I have yet to finish the book, though I will for perhaps an anthropological sense of the disaffected youth (is it not the word for the hip millennial crowd?) and because I know a lot of people like this, whom I am basing some of my characters on in my inchoate novel.]

The only maxim I can give for writing is that if you are going to include drug use in a story, treat it as you would any other detail of a person. From playing tennis to smoking weed, nothing is interesting unless it reveals something. Think about real life: are you really that titillated, especially when you are sober, by your friends when they are drunk or high? Absolutely not, and the reader is no different.