Trigger warning, Will Robinson

The New York Times controversialized (sic) a phenomenon known as a trigger warning, which it attributes to feminism.

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

I didn’t realize that I was performing a “trigger warning” when I give students the option to opt out of viewing films or youtube clips I show in class (no one ever opts out). I didn’t know this was a “thing”; for me it was just recognizing that individual students may not wish to see or hear certain things and I didn’t want to compel them to do so as their instructor. But in contrast to the article, I’ve never had a student request a trigger warning from me.

Backlash to the New York Times controversialization (sic) of the trigger warning appeared in a piece by Laurie Penny. According to her,

. . . the discussion about “Trigger Warnings” is being had in bad faith. I believe it is being used as a stand-in to falsely imply a terrifying leftist censoriousness, by people who don’t understand where the term comes from and don’t want to.

In her view,

A trigger warning is not a rule, it’s a tool. It does not demand that we withdraw from topics that are taboo or traumatic, but rather suggests that we approach such topics with greater empathy, greater awareness that not everyone reads the same way. . . . Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy. They are a polite plea for more openness, not less; for more truth, not less. They allow taboo topics and the experience of hurt and pain, often by marginalised people, to be spoken of frankly. They are the opposite of censorship.

While it is true that the knee-jerk reach for the censorship label itself censors discussion, the impulse towards rule-making in the intellectual realm constricts what remains of free thought. And frequently a feeling of empathy gives way to the individualizing guilt trip. However, there should be some boundaries, especially when dealing with a class room setting. For me, it is preferable to treat students as individuals first (with their own histories) rather than as representatives of pre-defined social groups. Allow individual students to sound the alarm.

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