Let's All Calm Down: Trigger Warnings For Books Are Not Like Censorship

Let's All Calm Down: Trigger Warnings For Books Are Not Like Censorship

Ladies and gentlemen, the apocalypse is upon us, and it has arrived in the form of the humble trigger warning. Or at least you’d think so, to go by the gallons of ink that have been spilled on the subject in the past week or so. Following a well-circulated New York Times article documenting the movement to add trigger warnings (alerts that the ensuing content may trigger PTSD symptoms) to assigned readings in college classes, thinkpiece after thinkpiece has jumped on the anti-warning bandwagon.

Reactions have ranged from skeptical understanding to outraged condemnation, but a general consensus has emerged: Trigger warnings need to be stopped, before they destroy college, if not the entire world.

So I’m here to say... really? Aren’t we all, maybe, overreacting a bit, and showing a fondness for the “slippery slope” argument that many commentators find absurd when it comes to, say, gay marriage? Many have easily equated trigger warnings with slapping a scarlet letter on classic literature warning students to avoid possible discomfort, when the reality is far less frightening: a few words, probably in a class syllabus, noting that a graphic and potentially triggering scene will appear in the book, as a courtesy to students with past trauma who will be reading the class material.

The widespread concern is understandable, of course. In fact, I also reacted to the Times headline with a laugh of horrified incredulity. ‘How easy must we make things for college students today?’ I wondered. In the designated age of helicopter parents and entitled students, it’s unsettling to think of class materials being Bowdlerized, safety-labeled, and stripped of the challenges and surprises that accompany true learning. Plus, like many fans of books and education, I bristle at the idea of censorship. All of this makes sense.

Moreover, it's true that the trigger warning has evolved from something specific to niche online gatherings -- feminist spaces, as well as online support groups where many users may have common triggers -- to something frequently used in mainstream media outlets to warn readers about upsetting content. At the same time, they've come to be applied in broader outlets to more and more specific triggers -- not just graphic violence or the like, but pictures of insects or tiny holes. Accommodating every phobia or sensitivity that exists is a futile endeavor, and even for more common afflictions like rape or suicidal thinking, specific triggers can vary. This makes any attempt to mandate trigger warnings for a broader audience particularly tricky. We certainly shouldn’t rush to throw trigger warnings haphazardly onto every bit of content (is it really likely that a general depiction of “colonialism” or “misogyny” will trigger anyone’s PTSD?), and the idea that materials be withheld from syllabi entirely due to graphic content is easy to critique, and should be critiqued.

Still, the near-universal rush to throw out all of the bathwater has led us to overlook the possibility of a baby worth saving. Is it possible that trigger warnings are not, as Jen Doll put it in The Guardian, “one giant leap for censorship,” but a tool that can, when used properly, provide useful protection for students suffering from trauma?

Doll’s attempt to paint trigger warnings as nearly tantamount to book banning is the sort of meaningless hyperbole that’s difficult to even argue against. Unlike book bans, trigger warnings do not prevent students from reading or viewing educational materials, nor do they prevent teachers from assigning anything they wish to teach. Period. And isn’t that, really, the problem with book banning?

While trigger warnings could tend to simplify and overdefine the content of a book (e.g., “Things Fall Apart is a book about colonialism”), the same could be said of many things that have proliferated over the years without totally destroying literature -- Cliff’s Notes; mediocre high school English classes; bad movie adaptations. The risk of oversimplification is easily countered by the fact that students will go on to read the book and experience its full complexity; it’s hard to imagine that 10 words of warning about a graphic scene would carry more weight than the experience of reading the book itself.

Other complaints about trigger warnings seem less overly dramatic than simply callous. Columnist after columnist condemns our tendency to coddle the current generation of students instead of forcing them to learn how to deal with their suffering, just as they’ll later have to do in the real world. But these trigger warnings aren’t intended to ensure sensitive students never have to deal with difficult material. They’re intended to facilitate the education of marginalized students by providing a heads-up that they should be mentally braced for material that could lead to a panic attack or similar episode. The material will still be there to be dealt with -- probably more effectively than if the student isn’t able to breathe or think clearly due to an intense flashback.

By brushing this off as coddling, or as encouraging “solipsism,” we’re insinuating that the very real mental health needs of students suffering from PTSD are petty or childish. We also imply that students are universally so sheltered and fragile that their sensitivity could only arise from sheer innocence, which denies the existence of the many students who have already come to know the worst parts of the world very intimately.

Many have pushed back against trigger warnings due to a fear that they will prevent students from dealing with the harsh realities that lie outside their own experience. Certainly, this is one of the more challenging and vital aspects of studying literature. Yet this ignores the basic function of trigger warnings, which is not to scare naive students away from shocking texts, but to make them accessible to students who are already familiar with certain harsh realities; so familiar, in fact, that reading an unexpected, graphic rape scene might trigger debilitating reminders of their own horrifying assaults.

Life does not come with trigger warnings, as these traumatized students know all too well. But they shouldn’t need to accept, quietly, revictimization in the classroom, where materials are chosen for their consumption and presented with the expectation of completion. In life, we can choose to avoid books or movies that we have reason to believe may contain triggering scenes, but if they’re assigned in class that autonomy is taken from us. Is a trigger warning so much to ask?

This massive backlash to the trigger warning movement has an ugly tinge to it. It’s a re-centering of the preferences of the privileged over the needs of the marginalized. In a New Yorker blog, writer Jay Caspian Kang recalls being thrown off by a professor's reminder that Lolita depicted sexual violence against a child. When he recounted this to Feministing editor and trigger warning supporter Alexandra Brodsky, she reportedly snipped back, "What a delight it must be to read a book full of graphic accounts of sexual violence and still have the book not be about sexual violence to you! Why is the depersonalized, apolitical reading the one we should fight for?" He resisted having to even recognize the presence of sexual violence in the text, but sexual violence is central to the book -- Nabokov himself would not have wished for readers to elide that reality.

Readers who haven't experienced such atrocities may wish to gloss over them in their reading, and so a trigger warning may seem to be an annoyance. But why are their concerns paramount? For students who have suffered rape, life-threatening violence, and war, a trigger warning may mean the difference between reading or viewing an important work with discomfort but mental preparedness and being totally derailed by a PTSD flashback or a panic attack. For the rest of us, it means a brief line on the syllabus -- a line we may even skip if we wish.

Detractors may clarify that they’re okay with “expecting professors to warn students that some material may be graphic or upsetting” or students having “access to the information they need to judge for themselves what they should or should not be exposed to” -- but isn’t that exactly what a trigger warning is? The rest really concerns details -- when should this be expected, regarding what issues, and how should we deal with (or not deal with) those who don’t agree to use them? These are all parameters worth considering. Shutting down the discussion prematurely by guffawing the whole concept out of the room serves no one, especially the ideal of open-mindedness.

Let’s all take a deep breath and get back to basics. Here’s what a trigger warning is: an empathetic attempt to make learning more accessible for PTSD and trauma sufferers by briefly noting that traumatizing subjects will be, especially if graphically, depicted at some point in the work assigned. Here’s what it isn’t: censorship. There would certainly be challenges inherent in standardizing, or even popularizing, the use of trigger warnings on college campuses. However, many forms of desirable social change require difficult work. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth trying to achieve.

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