Trigger Warnings have become anti-intellectual, arbitrary, and ultimately dangerous to open discussion and free debate, encouraging people to ignore anything they don’t want to listen to. And here’s why it’s a bad idea:
(Trigger Warning: Contains Descriptions and Criticisms of Trigger Warnings.)
Coming swiftly on the heels of other internet-popularized concepts like “Check your privilege,” the “Trigger Warning” trend has managed to spill over into the real world where this quite possibly well-meaning advocacy could lead to the most dangerous and backwards-thinking mentality that academia has seen in a while…. and people want to use them in college classrooms.
Well, first of all, what ARE “Trigger Warnings” exactly?
According to the Geek Feminism Wiki, Trigger Warnings are “designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called ‘being triggered’. ”
According to an excerpt from a draft of a professor guide at Oberlin College:And according to the objectively more uncouth Urban Dictionary: “A phrase posted at the beginning of various articles or blogs. Its purpose is to warn weak minded people who are easily offended that they might find what is being posted offensive in some way due to its content, causing them to overreact.”
Essentially, it’s a warning label saying that there is SOMETHING coming that SOMEONE may find offensive or traumatic.
Here’s what happened:
A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an articled covering petitions being brought forward by student groups at various schools across the country to make “Trigger Warnings” a mandatory element on reading materials and class syllabi, warning of any and all potentially offensive or alarming material. According to a student editorial from Rutgers, previously unquestioned members of literary reading material like “The Great Gatsby” would have to be marked with warnings labels for “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” or “Domestic abuse, graphic violence, and suicide,” that way readers who be made uncomfortable by this can avoid the book.
The backlash from scholars and academics everywhere was quick and surprisingly similar all across the board: Even if they sympathized with the sentiments, they thought it was a bad idea. It culminated earlier this week with the National Association of Scholars (NAS) hosting a “#TriggerWarningFail” contest on Twitter, and even I took a couple shots at it:
But what’s the big deal, right?
So some college kids want to put some warning labels on books so people who don’t want to expose themselves to offensive content don’t have to, right? Why is that a problem? I mean, that editorial from Rutgers pointed out that it’s better than what high-schools do by censoring and removing the books altogether… What’s the issue?
THE ISSUE IS THAT IT STILL LEADS TO CENSORSHIP.
As much as writers like Clair Fallon from the Huffington Post hotly deny it, “Trigger Warnings” are still a form of watered down censorship; a self-censorship that encourages people to avoid any and all content that would make them uncomfortable or challenge their preferred worldview.
Ms. Fallon accuses detractors of the movement for blowing it out of proportion, saying: “Many have easily equated trigger warnings with slapping a scarlet letter on classic literature warning students to avoid possible discomfort…”
But the problem is that is exactly what the intended plan is.
Just to clarify, we’re not talking about content disclaimers anymore for people with conditions like PTSD anymore. The advocates of trigger warnings have always been quickly vocal that these warning are there to help people that might suffer flashbacks to moments of extreme trauma, but the truth of the matter is that the idea of “Trigger Warnings” have been almost completely distorted from their original roots.
What started as a reasonable terminology on predominately feminist-thought blogs and circles to warn of impending content that dealt with graphic content such as rape or violence, has since become bloated, unwieldy, and remarkably imprecise, including any all manners of potential “triggers.” NOW, triggers can be literally anything, and more often than not, something that someone finds offensive. Rather than the medically legitimate panic-attacks that the original warnings were trying to prevent, being “triggered” has been co-opted by anyone who simply feels incredibly offended by something, and has become short-hand for “incredibly pissed-off.”
To the online community, anything that is an offensive trigger automatically becomes something to be avoided, or talked about in hushed, disparaging tones, if discussed at all. Fallon makes jokes about the 21st-century equivalent of a scarlet letter, but that’s what’s happening. More and more, “trigger warnings” are NOT being used to give people advance notice, but used to avoid discussion about topics that people straight-up do not want to address. Jill Filipovic sums it up very well:
“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 disagreement. 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.”
This is not just a view-point held by the stodgy patriarchy or anti-feminists, bent on crushing any and all free thought that comes from the women’s movement. Plenty of feminists think it has the potential to get rapidly out of hand as well, as expressed by Dr. Marcie Bianco in her article “9 Feminist Arguments Against Using Trigger Warnings in Academia,” where she lists why “trigger warnings” are actually going to do much more harm than good to the feminist movement.
The most basic problem with trigger warnings in academia is that an incredibly vague and unspecified concept will be used to arbitrarily create a list of what is and isn’t “ok” for the general populace to consume unknowingly, whether they like it or not.
And that’s not OK.
But wait! There’s more!
So much has already been written on how “Trigger Warnings” are another extraneous symptom of a generation of Americans that are too coddled, and bent on avoiding anything unpleasant. Unfortunately, accommodating the demands for blanket trigger warnings in higher education is also indicative of a darker mentality that is becoming increasingly prevalent; the mentality of “I’m offended, therefore I am right, and that which offends me is worse than wrong.”
The assumption is that, once “triggered,” you can do no wrong.
Increasingly, in the United States, people are under the assumption that they have the RIGHT to not be offended. Once offended, they see their rights as being violated, and any retaliation as totally justifiable. Don’t believe me? It’s already happening.
Feminist studies Professor Mireille Miller-Young was offended by graphic signs being held by pro-life protestors on campus. She confronted them, scratched them, shoved them, stole their sign, fled back to her office with supporting students in tow, shoved the protestors away again when they tried to retrieve their property, and finally destroyed the sign in her office. It’s on video.
Her defense? She said she was “triggered” by the image of the sign “which she found offensive as a pregnant woman who teaches about women’s reproductive rights.” According to the official crime report, “Miller-Young said that she did not feel that what she had done was criminal… [and] likened her behavior to that of a ‘conscientious objector,'” setting a good example for her students.
Should pro-life demonstrators be allowed to use graphic depictions of mutilated, unborn children (or “goo” if you’re Sarah Silverman)? The debate rages, and even parts of the pro-life camp don’t agree with it. BUT, just to be clear: stealing and destroying property that doesn’t belong to you, just because you don’t like it, is still illegal.
The problem is that these “triggers” have been fetish-ized by many in the social justice community, to the point where they LONG to be offended so they can feel that have a morally justifiable reason to totally let loose on whatever they happen to see as “horrific.” They’ve passed the point of looking out for people who have experience trauma, and have moved on to the point where they just hunt for reasons to be outraged.
This is not something to make light of people with serious conditions. As noted by MANY other writers before me, including ones quoted in this post, the problem with the new trigger warning craze is that it has moved so far beyond its original intent of protection, that it has become dangerous to open dialogue.
The ready willingness of many people in my generation to freak out or shut down conversation because something mentioned is their “trigger” is not healthy, and for most professors at college institutions, it could lead to unteachable classes. Stodgy conservative and liberal progressive teachers alike agree that they educate in an environment where their discussions are designed to expose students to new ideas, concepts, or knowledge. That’s the point of education. With overly-generalized trigger-warning standards in place in a classroom, intellectual-avoidance would become the norm, and teachers would be afraid to teach ANYTHING, since everything is going to be labelled.
In short: Trigger Warnings are no longer being used to protect those suffering from extreme trauma, but to protect people from being exposed to things they simply dislike. The proposed use of trigger warnings in higher education is ridiculous, and would have the end result of creating an intellectually weak generation of students who cannot or will not be bothered to engage opinions that are different to their own.
Louis W. Petolicchio lives and writes in Central Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.