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Trigger warnings, thick skins, and literature

May 26, 2014

If you’re unaware of trigger warnings, which are now being debated in academia, they’re similar to the disembodied warning at the beginning of certain programs that Viewer discretion is advised.

A trigger warning is a little more directed. It warns that certain content–be they lectures, movies, or even novels–maybe be difficult for readers with certain difficult life events in their past. It started with feminist blogs when topics such as sexual assault were discussed, as a way to help people who struggled with such an event in the past to be surprised by the content.

Trigger warnings became a topic recently when a few colleges, including the University of California at Santa Barbara, Oberlin, Rutgers, the University of Michigan, and George Washington University, discussed their inclusion on syllabi. Oberlin actually adopted a policy requiring trigger warnings, but is now discussing it after faculty said it affected their academic freedom.

Some of the works for which trigger warnings have been discussed include LolitaThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Like any other discussion that seems to invoke political correctness, the issue really comes down to freedom versus good intentions. Do universities or professors (or author or publishers, for that matter) have an obligation to warn potential consumers of their content if that content could trigger discomfort?

Put another way, if you had a friend who had been raped, would you warn that friend if she said she was going to read A Time to Kill? Would you warn a friend diagnosed with PTSD before he read Johnny Got His Gun? In essence, that’s what the trigger warnings are supposed to be. In theory, at least, they aren’t supposed to impede creation of difficult material or discussion of it. They’re like the parental discretion advised warnings on television, or the G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 ratings for movies.

In that sense, they seem like a good idea.

Then again, each year the American Library Association publishes a list of books that are most frequently challenged–the banned books list. The list for 2013, the most recent list, includes books flagged for violence, sexual violence, offensive language, nudity, and religious themes. Last year’s list includes 50 Shades of GreyThe Hunger GamesThe Bluest Eye (by Toni Morrison), and Captain Underpants.

In a world in which Mark Cuban’s comments about race become controversial, is it out of line to wonder if a trigger warning might wind up being the kiss of death for a book that doesn’t take the right approach.

It would be easy to simply reject the trigger warnings out of hand, to say people need to toughen up and deal with life. As someone starting a book about domestic violence against a man, I can see how a trigger warning could be used to dismiss certain content simply because it doesn’t toe the conventional line. But I would still warn a friend who had been raped about the beginning of A Time to Kill.

One Comment
  1. May 27, 2014 11:51 am

    Hmm, tough subject. To make this brief, it’s good to warn a friend. However, I have a certain trigger point myself, but I don’t need the government to warn me. I’d prefer hearing it from a friend. I think many people would trust a friend over the government anyway.

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