One’s first inclination is to laugh – laugh heartily or perhaps in despair – at the idea that college students, or students of any kind, require “trigger warnings” that they will encounter “upsetting” material in the books they are reading. I nearly laughed out loud when I read an article, which is linked in a Daniel Greenfield book review of a title produced by an especially repulsive writer, David K. Shipler. Greenfield wrote in “Shameless Liar: The Strange Dishonest World of David K. Shipler”:
Freedom of Speech [Shipler’s book] instead sets out an imaginary struggle in which the conservatives are censors while those on the left are defenders of free speech. There are bad parents who think their children shouldn’t be assigned novels filled with graphic sexual acts and good leftist teachers who teach children that free enterprise is evil. It’s a comfortable lefty talking point from a few generations ago.
Today books with sexual content are censored by social justice warriors who demand trigger warnings or object to heteronormative content. The final frontier for censoring novels isn’t the PTA; it’s angry students at colleges demanding trigger warnings for The Great Gatsby and Lolita.
The linked article of April 14th is on Inside Higher Ed, “Oberlin backs down on ‘trigger warnings’ for professors who teach sensitive material.” Its author, Colleen Flaherty wrote:
Trigger warnings, which are common in blogs but also have begun to appear on college and university syllabuses, are supposed to signal to readers that forthcoming material may be uncomfortable or upsetting. Trigger warned-subject matter – in literature, films or other texts – usually relates to sexual assault and other kinds of violence, racism, and the like, and advocates say students have a right to know of sensitive material in advance.
It saves our short-attention span smitten students the trouble of actually reading a book, don’t you see? Better to strain ones neck reading one’s iPod, or iPhone.
But some critics of trigger warnings say that higher education is rooted in confronting uncomfortable ideas and experiences. And more practically, critics say, it’s nearly impossible in classes with students with differing sensibilities to define what deserves a trigger warning.
How did Oberlin define a “trigger” or a “trigger warning”?
“Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma,” the policy said. “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.” The policy said that “anything could be a trigger,” and advised professors to “[r]emove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.”
Oberlin later “tabled the policy” because its faculty complained it wasn’t consulted on its content and recommendations. After all, how could they indoctrinate their students in the Marxist/Progressive litany of capitalist crimes of “of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression” if they had to preface every mention of Western “crimes” and “cultural imperialism” with a warning?
Given the lack of consensus on trigger warnings in the classroom, it was perhaps unsurprising that the extensive trigger warning policy Oberlin College published in its Sexual Offense Resource Guide proved controversial earlier this academic year. Faculty members criticized the policy from within, saying it had been drafted largely without their input, even though they stood on the front lines of such a policy….
“This section of the resource guide is currently under revision, after thoughtful discussion on campus suggested that some changes could make the guide more useful for faculty,” Meredith Raimondo, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and co-chair of the Sexual Offense Policy Task Force, said via email. “As the resource guide has always stated, the task force values both academic freedom and support for survivors of sexualized violence. We do not see these as contradictory projects, but rather that both are necessary to create an appropriately challenging and effective learning environment.” Oberlin’s sexual offense policy page for faculty contains a similar message under the heading “How can I make my classroom more inclusive for survivors of sexualized violence?”
The Higher Ed article reported that most of the Oberlin faculty, which initially endorsed such a policy, realized that to adhere to such a policy would render teaching anything virtually impossible. A teacher would need the faculty of omniscience to know the “sensitivities” and “trauma” potentialities of his students to pen such “trigger warnings” to his syllabus. Were it the subject of study, the violence in The Old Testament of the Bible would require ten or twenty dozen “trigger warnings,” as well as the seduction scenes in Alfred HItchcock’s North by Northwest, in one of which Eva Marie Saint is being seduced by Cary Grant, who says he might murder her, and she says, “Please do.”
It would be enough to drive a gay or LGBT student up the wall and cause it seek therapy, or seek some form of medicinal relief, and plummet it to the deepest depths of depression to see heterosexuals flaunting their cultural “privilege” and sexual hegemony so shamelessly.
Meghan Daum, in her Los Angeles Times article of April 3rd, 2014, “Why ‘trigger warnings’? We already live in a hair-trigger world,” reported:
Academia has always been an easy target for mockery. Henry Kissinger observed that university politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so low, and one logical extension is that liberal arts departments are steeped in self-importance precisely because their impact on the "real world" is negligible.
Ergo, the recent campus phenomenon known as the "trigger warning." Originating on certain feminist, self-help and social activist blogs, trigger warnings are meant to inform readers that the ensuing material deals with subjects, such as war or sexual violence, that might upset those suffering from post-traumatic stress related to those issues….
Now the practice is creeping toward liberal arts syllabi. The UC Santa Barbara student Senate recently passed a resolution calling for professors to label potentially upsetting course material and even excuse "triggered" students from some classes. Oberlin College in Ohio has already implemented such guidelines, advising instructors not to assign triggering material at all unless it's directly relevant to the lesson.
Distressing as such potential incursions on academic freedom and inquiry may be, the real trend here may not be trigger warnings but the torrent of outrage they've set off. They're ripe for bemused chatter, to say the least. A New Republic article supplied a list of warning-worthy triggers: bullying, sizism, ablism, transphobia, slut shaming, alcohol and (seriously) animals in wigs. In December, Slate declared 2013 "the year of the trigger warning." Even the satirical Onion has been called out for failing to warn readers about disturbing content in fake stories.
Yes, “trigger warnings” are eminently susceptible to ribaldry and mockery, but the fact that such an issue even arises in the ivy of politically correctness that currently chokes the halls of academe should serve as a signal that students and teachers alike are thriving on the nonsense.
Michael Rubin, in his Commentary Magazine article, “I need a Trigger Warning on Trigger Warnings” of May 6th, 2015, treats trigger warnings with the contempt they deserve.
I have to admit, the first time I heard about trigger warnings, I thought they were a joke. In short, trigger warnings assume that students are so infantile that they cannot handle classroom discussion or themes in great literature that push them beyond their comfort zone. Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (about whose work I previously blogged here), discusses trigger warnings in Freedom from Speech, his new Encounter Broadside booklet:
In May 2014, the New York Times called attention to a new arrival on the college campus: trigger warnings. Seemingly overnight, colleges and universities across America have begun fielding student demands that their professors issue content warnings before covering any material that might evoke a negative emotional response…. By way of illustration, the Times article pointed to a Rutgers’ student’s op-ed requesting trigger warnings for The Great Gatsby, which apparently “possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”
Rubin later in his piece sends up trigger warnings in a paragraph full of trigger warnings, ending with:
Trigger warnings, even if well intentioned, might remind them of this oppressive and sometimes lethal political correctness and cause undue stress. Accordingly, in order to protect the mental well-being of those who value liberty, intellectual freedom, and oppose censorship, perhaps it’s time to agree to put trigger warnings ahead of trigger warnings to ensure that no one is inadvertently stressed out by the decline in mental and intellectual maturity and the infantilization of society which trigger warnings represent.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP)) reported in August 2014 in “On Trigger Warnings”:
A current threat to academic freedom in the classroom comes from a demand that teachers provide warnings in advance if assigned material contains anything that might trigger difficult emotional responses for students. This follows from earlier calls not to offend students’ sensibilities by introducing material that challenges their values and beliefs….
As one report noted, at Wellesley College students objected to "a sculpture of a man in his underwear because it might be a source of 'triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault.' While the [students’] petition acknowledged that the sculpture might not disturb everyone on campus, it insisted that we share a 'responsibility to pay attention to and attempt to answer the needs of all of our community members.' Even after the artist explained that the figure was supposed to be sleepwalking, students continued to insist it be moved indoors."
The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and—as the Oberlin list demonstrates—it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention.
Jennifer Medina in her May 2014 New York Times article, “The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” also noted:
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. 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....
The most vociferous criticism has focused on trigger warnings for materials that have an established place on syllabuses across the country. Among the suggestions for books that would benefit from trigger warnings are Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” (contains anti-Semitism) and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (addresses suicide)….
“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 is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.”
The New Republic also weighed in on the subject here, making many of the same points about “shielding students’ psyches” from “uncomfortable” or “traumatizing” literary and even cinematic content in the classroom and in readings.
I wonder how many “trigger warnings” would be required for students reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead that there is a rape scene in the novel (which Rand called “rape by engraved invitation”). On the side of the sexual assault coin is the rampage of rapes by ISIS on Yazidis and other non-Muslim women. But then, in today’s universities, Rand’s novels are not studied, and criticizing Islam is out of the question, as well.
My own hypothesis about the newly ubiquitous phenomena of “trigger warnings” is that that they are a direct result of the McDonald’s “hot coffee” lawsuit and similar lawsuits that followed it. That lawsuit resulted a huge “compensatory” award to the “victim” of scalding hot coffee. The LectLaw site has some interesting information on the case:
Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned by McDonalds' coffee in February 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a Styrofoam cup at the drive-through window of a local McDonalds.
After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.) Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap. The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas.
So, instead of setting the Styrofoam cup on her arm rest, or on the dashboard, or opening the glove compartment in front of her and placing the cup on the swing-open door to add her cream and sugar, she placed it between her knees. Naturally, this would require a bit of a squeeze by her knees to keep the cup steady, even were the car not moving. Naturally, the liquid would exert pressure on the plastic lid. A sudden jolt would result in a caffeine eruption from the cup. Duh! This is carelessness with a capital C.
Liebeck might retort: “But I didn’t think of doing that! It’s McDonald’s fault I didn’t think! I shouldn’t have to think!”
And there’s your problem with product liability suits and “consumer” protection laws and warning labels on especially food packaging: It’s all devised to appeal to people who are habitually or congenitally non-thinkers, to stay the hands of the stupid, to deter the actions of the dense, and for companies to protect or insulate themselves from ruinous lawsuits by the thoughtless and their conniving lawyers.
There are now countless “trigger warnings” on food packaging, such as, “Caution: Product will be hot!” and “Lift lid carefully. It’s hot!” especially on microwavable snacks and entrées. Which is in the way of obviating the whole purpose of heating the meal in the first place. Such warnings seem addressed to anyone with a short-term memory who has forgotten the nature of heat. These are in addition to the superfluous advisories to wait one or five minutes for the “product to complete cooking” after a microwaving, when it will sit in a microwave oven daring you to reach inside and touch the product before it cools to a presumably scientifically measured temperature and to a minimal point of tactile tolerance. Otherwise, you would presumably cook your fingers.
I must confess that I’ve squeezed a Styrofoam cup more than once and saw the liquid spill onto my Chicken McNuggets (but never into my lap). I’ve also been so drowsy in the morning that I’ve tried to brush my teeth with shaving cream and lather my face with toothpaste. I blame Barbasol and Crest for not providing me with “trigger warnings.” Those episodes of semi-consciousness cost me irreparable mental anguish.
I’m sure there are countless lovers of Marie Callender’s chicken pot pies who, without the trigger
warning that’s not only on the packaging, but on the pie wrapping itself, would thoughtlessly reach with their bare fingers into a steaming, freshly nuked pie and blame Marie Callender for their pains.