We Don't Have to Use Trigger Warnings, But We Can Learn From Them

The fact that some students are requesting trigger warnings for college class materials is incredibly important and should be commended. Campuses should take them very seriously. We all should. But they are still a terrible idea.

To be clear, this isn't about the decade-long Internet/blog use of trigger warnings. [Ed: We don't use them at Jezebel.] It's about the increasingly expanded use of them in the real world, i.e., a number of universities are grappling with how to handle requests from students to include TWs to protect victims of sexual assault, or veterans of war, who would be unnecessarily re-traumatized by exposure to graphic scenes of rape or wartime violence or other difficult themes in literature. A student at Rutgers has laid out some prime suspects: The Great Gatsby has gore, abuse and misogynistic violence. Mrs. Dalloway examines suicide. Junot Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her features domestic abuse.

And Rutgers apparently isn't the only place this is going down. The NYT says it's more widespread than that:

The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools.

You can see where this is going in simple debate terms: Academics cry censorship. Students cry trauma. You can easily ding both positions, too: Is it really censoring anything to simply label it with more information? Are the students really traumatized here, when one anecdote includes a student who didn't want to read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, not for the racism, sexism, or incest, but because it contained the word snot?

All that misses the point, though, and highlights how terrible we all are at addressing conflict. But first, just to disclose my bias: I actually agree with many of the academics and columnists who have argued that trigger warnings "dumb down education," which is supposed to disrupt, confront, expand and enlighten. It's not fun, either, because you often do that by learning about terrible shit in history (mostly wars and elections) and literature (mostly people doing terrible things to themselves, each other).

Terrible shit doesn't feel good. It changes you. It often leaves you reeling. It can shatter your entire understanding of the world as you know it. I've read things in books that have made me sick, things I can never un-read or un-see. The worst part is, it's great real-life training for being in the world. Because the terrible shit never stops. Look at the Internet! One minute you learn about another set of parents caught starving their own children. The next, college kids are returning $40k they found in a thrift store couch to an old lady. It's like every day on earth is a fresh round of Sick, Sad World vs. Upworthy.

But unlike Upworthy, literature guides us to address that unending shit cycle in a meaningful way that actually helps you process it and transcend it (or even become a better person). Certainly it's not always that tidy, but in no small part, the ambiguity in literature is the fucking point, the acceptance of which is the transcendence. So ironically, by aiming to avoid painful reminders of trauma in art, you might also be skipping the chance for healing it offers.

But even though I feel all of this deep in my post-collegiate bones, I still think all the arguments about how infantilizing it is to include trigger warnings on college campuses misses what we should taking away from these requests, such as:

Students are Being Students

This is what kids are supposed to do at college — organize, protest, advocate for themselves. Look at the world around them and try to change it. Maybe their ideas are not always tenable or they don't work out, but that in itself is a lesson. I'm always heartened to hear about students challenging the status quo or making stodgy adults listen to their concerns. That's exactly as it should be. And boy do kids get it both ways: When they aren't being too lazy to advocate for themselves, they're being little fascists who have the gall to advocate for themselves.

Young People Carry Tremendous Baggage

Kids in college are thought of as these young, naïve, uncorrupted youngsters who need knowledge dropped on them hard, but it gives me pause to acknowledge how many of them have been sexually assaulted or seen trauma already. Regardless of what you think we should do about that, it's heartbreaking to think that some students begin an experience meant to challenge them already deeply challenged and fragile enough that they aren't able to experience the positive cognitive dissonance being offered through an education. Give them a fucking break.

The Stigma of Mental Illness Is Really Fading

There are students in college who've been through wars and are advocating for their own mental health, and sexual assault victims who are willing to speak out now publicly about their experiences. That takes tremendous courage. It means, in large part, that the stigma surrounding these issues is fading. This is exactly what mental health advocates want, yes? For victims to advocate for themselves, to share their experiences so that we can acknowledge their suffering. Again, the proposed solution of trigger warnings may not be ideal or agreed upon by everyone, but it has opened a debate that puts issues of mental health in full view. Let's not trivialize that by calling them widdle babies.

The Canon Should be Challenged

In the same way feminists have long challenged the canon of literature taught to students for its focus on the work of mostly dead white males, I think it's OK to examine what we include in the canon and why for other reasons. Yes, professors should be trusted to choose a curriculum that imparts grand themes and provocative writing yadda yadda, but come on, having to reexamine that is not the worst thing that could happen. That could mean including works that actually enhance sensitivity to these very issues.

Greater Sensitivity

Having to take these concerns and requests seriously pretty much asks academic bodies to do the very thing they claim to ask of students: strengthen their ability to imagine other perspectives, particularly marginalized ones. Ding ding ding! The whole point of college.

All that said, I think there are other solutions than blanket trigger warnings on class materials. If the real meat of the request is to help students identify situations in which they are vulnerable, let's do that: Let's help them get counseling. Let's make it clear that students with certain conditions can opt-out of classes for which they are not fit to meet the requirements. Let's look at what it means to be truly inclusive while also honoring the essence of what we say education is about. Universities owe every student they serve a seat at the table. A piece over at HuffPo makes a great point:

Perhaps the real way to address this subject is to encourage faculty to try whenever feasible to inform students about the content of their courses rather than issuing mandates about trigger warnings. Simultaneously, students need to be informed in general, beginning with first-year orientation and oftentimes thereafter, that college is all about shocking them — shocking them into new realizations, new understandings, new ways of seeing the world, new beliefs about the physical and the metaphysical worlds, and new vicarious experiences that sometimes will make them feel very uncomfortable.

But please: Let's stop insulting students for asking for help. Many of the pieces I've read quote professors or "free speech advocates" who insist on framing this issue as childish, and insult the students who are looking to straddle something pretty complex, as if this is purely about lazy kids who don't want to be offended:

"Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives," said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that advocates free speech.

It's actually part of an inevitable movement toward finally considering perspectives we once shamed into silence. Such mature, high-minded intellectuals really ought to know better.

Image by Jim Cooke, source photo via Shutterstock.