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Warning: This Article Could Traumatize You

Should colleges be required to issue 'trigger warnings' for cultural works that might upset students?

Trigger warnings are all the rage just now. They are basically disclaimers stating someone’s opinion that the content you are about to see or hear might freak you out. The idea takes many forms — ratings on films, TV "viewer discretion" alerts, Tipper Gore’s famous campaign for record warnings — but the latest iteration comes not from gray-haired conservatives or righteous moms, but a strain of contemporary feminists who started using the term (or its short form, TW) in web discussions on touchy subjects. Now they’d like to bring disclaimers into the college classroom.

TW: I am not a fan of trigger warnings.

According to a recent New York Times piece, trigger warnings such as those proposed at the University of California, Santa Barbara and several other colleges are to be understood as “explicit alerts that the material [students] 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.” For example, a UCSB sophomore who had suffered sexual abuse became upset in the classroom at what she considered a graphic film depiction of rape in some unnamed work and argues that she should have been warned.

Was it "A Clockwork Orange" that got her? There are certainly a couple of film scenes part of me wishes I could unsee (Lars von Trier's "Antichrist", Gaspar Noé's "Irréversible" come to mind). But how are we to know who will be triggered by what? Your response to a depiction of lobotomies in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" might be different from someone who has had an upsetting experience with mental illness. A person who has been a victim of violent crime might be appalled by the entire Scorcese canon. What about a fundamentalist Christian watching "A Handmaid's Tale"? How many TWs do we need?

And isn't there something innately conservative about a list of things that "qualify" as disturbing? Who gets to decide what should go on the list?

What about canonical works like Ovid’s Metamorphosis? A student writing for the Harvard Crimson argues that Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” — you know, the poem in which Zeus takes the form of a waterfowl in order to impregnate Leda — might set off rape trauma. It is true that rape, seductions and bizarre unions are common tropes in the mythic vein of literature, which often deals with the tension between the human and the divine, and the animal and spirit worlds. Now, you could certainly say that Zeus and Leda’s activities probably were not consensual in the modern legal sense. But then, consider what Isis did to Osiris: she stuck a golden dildo onto his dead, dismembered body and impregnated herself. Was that consensual? Doubtful. The moon goddess Selene so admired the youthful hotness of the mortal Endymion that she basically roofied the guy for eternity, had sex with him, and bore 50 daughters. Sappho wrote poems about it. TW!

You see the point.

No doubt, a bloated old goat of a literature professor like Harold Bloom would not get the ick factor that might exist in the mind of a young feminist when confronted with Zeus taking Leda in his beak. (BTW Leda laid an egg which contained Helen of Troy, and we all know what happened to her. Bad news all around.) I sympathize. When I was in graduate school at NYU, the department was dominated by that very Harold Bloom, who, when he was not chasing female students around his office, was glorifying a patriarchal literary tradition that didn’t much care if a great portion of the human race might not find its values and tenets so appealing.