Trigger Warnings

Standard

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.

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