Warning: This Article Could Traumatize You

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.

So there’s that.

Yet there's this: Having taught literature at the college level, I can report without equivocation that great literature is most often about…TW!...human trauma. Name the work, The Illiad, Hamlet, Beloved, Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, and somebody is getting hacked, whacked, brutalized, fucked over, offing themselves, or acting upon some derangement or perversity.

That’s what literature does. It confronts and investigates the human condition, which is no picnic. (Nor is it a feminist blog forum; also no picnic). So the idea of singling out certain books as needing a trigger warning (please slap one on the Bible!), seems pretty silly, and the rest of the blogosphere is having a field day mocking the idea.

But there’s also this. Universities really don’t do a great job of dealing with the mental fragility of students who are making a huge transition from home to college life, nor do they do much to prepare the people who are teaching them. And let me tell you, things can get intense.

In my three years teaching expository writing at NYU, I had one male student come out as gay reading an essay to my class, another acknowledge for the first time having been sodomized by a teacher when he was 12, and a third reveal to me that he was not only a big fan of the Marquis de Sade, but practiced S&M at underground clubs around Manhattan. Then he started to call me at home.

I was taking some graduate-level psychology courses at the time, so I was not completely without resources under these circumstances. In the first two cases I tried to be as supportive and understanding as I could, while suggesting counseling if needed. In the third case, I alerted a senior professor, who advised me how to handle things and gave me the numbers of some mental health professionals. I stopped answering my phone for a bit, too.

So this proves to me that some students—certainly a small minority in my experience—really do get set off in classrooms, and this can be not only upsetting to them and their fellow students, but a dodgy for the professor as well.

Trigger warnings don’t seem like the way to handle this (unless they warn the classroom that a student is literally carrying a firearm, in which case, good luck with that). After all, the classroom is supposed to be a place where spontaneous thoughts and discussions and debate are allowed to arise—even encouraged. But teachers with some training in how young people may react to certain content or mental exercises might not be such a bad thing.

Let’s just not be stupid about it.


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