There’s a particular reaction that folks like me — who worry openly about the presence and spread of “trigger warnings” on American campuses — hear a lot. It gets phrased in a variety of different ways, but basically it boils down to “what’s the big deal?”
A version of this line of reasoning was well-articulated in The New York Times in early September by Sophie Downes, a senior at the University of Chicago. “A trigger warning is pretty simple,” Downes says. “It consists of a professor’s saying in class, ‘The reading for this week includes a graphic description of sexual assault,’ or a note on a syllabus that reads, ‘This course deals with sensitive material that may be difficult for some students...’ A little heads-up can help students engage with uncomfortable and complex topics, and a little sensitivity to others, at the most basic level, isn’t coddling.”
On its own terms, that argument is strong. To the extent that trigger warnings are simply notifications of potentially disturbing materials to come, I’d agree they’re pretty harmless.
To say, however, that a trigger warning is necessarily only such a notification misses a few important points.
In the connotation-heavy lexicon of campus rhetoric, asserting that a book, image or idea is “triggering” often implies more than just that it might disturb some people by virtue of what it depicts. Rather, it is not uncommon for a student who says that something is “triggering” to mean that it is actually or even medically harmful, because of the subject it deals with, the message it conveys or the idea it represents, rather than the method of depiction itself.
An example of this meaning of “triggering” was seen in use at Occidental College a few weeks ago, when Oxy’s College Republicans dotted the quad with miniature American flags and signs to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11. Next morning, someone had replaced the signs, snapped the flags in two and thrown them into trash cans. Folks were rightly outraged, but one student group took to Facebook to defend the vandals’ actions on substantive grounds.
“As students of color, this symbol of the American flag is particularly triggering for many different reasons,” the statement said. “For us, this flag is a symbol of institutionalized violence (genocide, rape, slavery, colonialism, etc.) against people of color, domestically as well as globally.”
Disregard the hyperbole for a moment and look at the logic. The suppression of the image by vandalism is justified because what it represents, rather than what it depicts, is actually harmful to these students. Destroying the display is akin to tearing down an asbestos-filled building — the neutralization of a health and safety hazard.
Even if one rejects out of hand the surface-level argument that triggering images can justifiably be vandalized, censored or suppressed, the underlying premise — that such images are dangerous and harmful because of the ideas, messages or histories that they represent — may still operate. The same logic presumptively applies to those ideas, messages or histories when represented directly.
It may seem like I’ve cherry-picked an extreme example here, but such thinking isn’t rare on campus. Ask the folks at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I interned this summer, how often they encounter the proposition that ideas can be a form of violence. They lost count a long time ago.
It’s sort of a silly comparison, but imagine if a biology professor said to her class, “Just a heads-up, I’m about to release an untamed arctic wolf into our classroom.” Sure, it’s just a notification, but there’s a great deal that’s implied, but goes unsaid. The wolf is dangerous. The wolf might hurt someone. Interacting with the wolf might have some educational value, but everyone would get that they are being warned to behave differently, more cautiously when the wolf is at large in the lecture hall.
If everyone in the room understands that an idea or a work of art which is triggering is like a wolf — that it’s dangerous and might hurt someone if interacted with improperly — that’s necessarily going to narrow the spectrum of ways in which students feel comfortable engaging with it. A student might want to know, out of academic curiosity, what the wolf would do if he snarled at it, but he’s not going to, because someone might get hurt. When the wolf is around, curiosity takes a back seat to safety.
My worry, therefore, is that the common understanding that triggering materials are dangerous combined with the official labeling of certain materials as triggering will result in anything that gets slapped with a trigger warning becoming like the wolf: unexamined because feared.
That’s why I worry about trigger warnings; because “feared, and so unexamined” is precisely the all-too-human state of affairs which liberal education is supposed to remedy. It is why we built university gates through which the fears that plague us everywhere else could not pass so that we, unencumbered by them, could have the courage to ask that most terrifying of questions — what is true?
So forgive me if I am perhaps too cautious in defense of those gates. I fear to lose them.
ALEC WARD is a College senior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough,” usually appears every Wednesday.
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