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Friday Round-up: Trigger Warnings Edition

College students are demanding to be warned when class materials — perhaps a graphic film, perhaps a Shakespeare play — might trigger a traumatic memory. Is this the right way to handle disturbing material?

By Nathan Pippenger

By now, it’s trite to worry that young people have become desensitized by exposure to the violence and sexuality that saturate pop culture. But a very different trend is emerging on America’s campuses: growing calls for “trigger warnings” that will alert students to the potentially traumatizing effects of works commonly found on college syllabi.

As Jenny Jarvie explains, “trigger warnings” first emerged as a disclaimer on Internet message boards. Since then, they’ve spread “from feminist forums and social media to sites as large as the The Huffington Post,” and now to college campuses. At UC Santa Barbara, a recent student resolution called for the inclusion of trigger warnings on syllabi and supported the rights of students to walk out of class or refuse to attend if they feel disturbed by material. The resolution’s student sponsor worries about peers “stuck in a classroom where they can’t get out, or if they do try to leave, it is suddenly going to be very public.” This push, however, has been met with strong resistance from many professors and free speech advocates.

There is a difficulty, often unacknowledged, in transmitting trigger warnings from Internet forums to college classrooms. Universities are arranged for different purposes; they already have distinct norms and practices. Trigger warnings were introduced for highly-personal Internet posts read voluntarily and in solitude in front of a computer, not for esteemed works read for intellectual and personal enrichment in close association with peers and a professor. It may be that they can travel from their original setting to this new one, but at this point that’s an unproven—and tendentious—assumption.

Indeed, the difficulties of applying such warnings to college study are becoming apparent. The UCSB resolution focuses on students who feel trapped during a presentation or film screening they can’t leave, but it’s silent on material assigned to be read or watched outside of class. It’s not clear, on the logic of triggers, why warnings (and exemptions) shouldn’t extend to these outside-the-classroom assignments too.

It’s this apparent breadth of the “trigger” logic that has so many academics (and others) worried. At The New Yorker, Jay Caspian Kang argues that trigger warnings will flatten texts—taking the rich ecosystems created by great literature and reducing them “down to what amounts to plot points.” In this reductive move, a book like Lolita—full of formal intricacies, stunning linguistic virtuosity, and provocative narrative devices—becomes simply the tale of Humbert Humbert’s grotesque crime, and nothing more. Kang concludes: “A trigger warning or, really, any sort of preface, would disrupt the creation of those highly pressurized, vital moments in literature that shock a reader into a higher consciousness.”

This worry—that flattened texts will produce flattened readers—is perhaps the chief fear among educators. Advocates, in response, insist that students should be aware of the potential threat posed by graphic materials. But it’s not clear why this problem can’t be addressed by current practices. College classrooms are supposed to be places for context and discussion. Don’t thoughtful professors already prepare their students for disturbing material, without resorting to alarmist or reductive measures that treat readers as passive victims whose discomfort can only lead to harm, not (eventual) growth?

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history at NYU, recently tried, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, to imagine a world in which these careful classroom discussions are replaced by a simplistic reliance on triggers. His satirical U.S. History syllabus warns Wiccans about the Puritans, Confederate apologists about the Civil War, and liberals about Reagan. “If the topic threatens to provoke feelings of trauma or panic in you, please inform me beforehand and I will excuse you from class,” Zimmerman assures his hypothetical students. Then, perhaps imagining an empty classroom, he continues: “I’m looking forward to learning together in a safe environment!”

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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