Trigger warnings. I first encountered them about five years ago. We were reading a book about disordered eating. I showed images of high-fashion models next to pro-anorexic images to illustrate the idea that our culture’s ideal beauty is not really that different from an anorexic body. Two young women in the class told me I should have given a trigger warning since women with eating disorders could have experienced psychological duress from the images. It was my duty, apparently, to make sure no one was ever disturbed by my class. A couple of years later I showed images of Abu Ghraib in a different class. Again: Images of torture could trigger someone. I tried to make a joke. “You know what’s worse than images of torture? Being tortured.” They didn’t laugh. Ever since then, I more or less try to avoid showing anything too upsetting.
What started out as a slow trickle of trigger warnings is now a tsunami. As Amanda Marcotte pointed out, this is the Year of the Trigger Warning. Trigger warnings began on feminist blogs as a way of warning readers that the content contained material about domestic violence or rape or even disordered eating. According to a young feminist blogger acquaintance of mine, it made sense to give trigger warnings since reading a blog should not cause any damage. But then trigger warnings spread. And spread. A virus of warnings infected blogs, public art, and now classrooms.
Some students and professors argue that nearly everything should come with a trigger warning. Mrs. Dalloway? Trigger warning: suicidal tendencies. The Great Gatsby? Trigger warning: suicide, domestic abuse, graphic violence. Think I’m making this up? I’m not. Those warnings come from a student op-ed in Rutgers’s The Daily Targum. It seems absurd, like an article in The Onion. To add to the Kafkaesque irony of it all, some people want The Onion to come with trigger warnings too.
Not only should all that we read or show in our classes come with trigger warnings, but also apparently anything can be a trigger. A Wellesley alumna, blogging about a statue of a sleepwalking man in his underwear that many students said had triggered them, argued that:
Triggers can be anything. You don’t get to pick them, and there’s not always a clear explanation as to why something is a trigger. For a while, I couldn’t go into any grocery store without having a panic attack, for no discernible reason. I’ve never been attacked in a grocery store, and yet the produce aisle now gives me anxiety. No idea.
So no literature or readings that might upset anyone, no movies or advertisements or songs, and oh, by the way, you never know what might trigger someone, so you’d better just be prepared for anything you do or say or even eat to result in a student demanding you stop because it’s triggering for them.
I am the first person to admit that I’m an insensitive jerk, but the next person who says “trigger warning” to me is going to get sucker-punched. Oops, I should have put a TW on that: violence. OK, is going to get a serious talking to about the relationship between the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary (TW: Lacanian theory may cause headaches).
I insist that there is a difference between an act and its representation. Let me put it this way: A character in a novel who beats his wife or a sociological study of domestic abuse is not the same thing as getting beaten. It demeans and diminishes real trauma to argue that consuming literature, art, history, and social science is an act of violence.
Trigger warnings are a very dangerous form of censorship because they’re done in the name of civility. Learning is painful. It’s often ugly and traumatic. How different my life would be if I hadn’t read Crime and Punishment because it’s misogynist and violent. How terrible my teaching would be if I hadn’t spent years researching spectacle lynchings and eugenics and freak shows in order to teach courses on race and American culture.
And if there’s one thing that my research has taught me, it is that many of the ugliest pieces of our past and our present are centered on the figure of the lady: delicate, pure, and vulnerable (and always in need of protection). This is important because most trigger warnings come from young women. We are told it is our duty and obligation to protect them since they have posttraumatic-stress disorder and therefore cannot handle the anxiety produced by that which might upset them.
I would like to insist that young women can in fact deal with the pain of a fully engaged classroom. I have faith that they are not delicate flowers in need of my protection, but rather strong beings who can learn to deal with their very real pain.
The world is a painful and anxiety-inducing place, and human representations of the world are often painful to consume. But rather than retreating into a world where our courses are reduced to viewings of My Little Pony, let’s all put on our big-girl panties (or big-boy tighty whities, as in the case of the Wellesley statue) and face that world together. Let’s talk about it, think about it, write about it, analyze it, and, in the end, learn to engage fully with all of it, even those parts that cause us to curl up in pain and sob. Because that’s what a real education requires, and limiting ourselves to pretty images of rainbow ponies is not enough to know the world.
Laurie Essig is an associate professor of sociology and gender studies at Middlebury College. She is the author of American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection (Beacon Press, 2010).