May 21, 2015
For mature audiences only: Should books come with trigger warnings?
by Taylor Sperry
Should professors be required to warn their students that they’ve assigned them emotionally distressing material?
Seems like “no,” but that’s a real question facing Columbia University (and many other institutions, both in the US and abroad), where four students advocated in the daily Spectator for the implementation of “trigger warnings” to accompany any texts that might be considered offensive.
This initiative was sparked by a recent incident in which a student—a survivor of sexual assault—“described being triggered” during her reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and who subsequently “completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.”
The petitioners are quick to point out that they do not want “to infringe upon the instructors’ academic freedom,” but they believe there should be an infrastructure in place to help professors anticipate and negotiate students’ reactions to problematic material.
This has, of course, stirred much debate on campus. The Washington Post pulled “Grow up, open up, care less about your identity and more about your passions” from the hundreds of responses to the op-ed. And: “Such an insufferable breed of self-centered Care Bears.”
There’s also the obvious concern of censorship. Where is the line between attaching a warning to a book and removing it from the syllabus–and how many books might we see disappear? As Jerry A. Coyne writes for The New Republic:
The pathway of such trigger warnings—not just for sexual assault but for violence, bigotry, and racism—will eventually lead to every work of literature being labeled as potentially offensive. There goes the Bible, there goes Dante, there goes Huck Finn (loaded with racism), there goes all the old literature written before we realized that minorities, women, and gays weren’t second-class people. And as for violence and hatred, well, they’re everywhere, for they’re just as much parts of literature as parts of life. Crime and Punishment? Trigger warning: brutal violence against an old woman. The Great Gatsby? Trigger warning: violence against women (remember when Tom Buchanan broke Mrs. Wilson’s nose?). The Inferno? Trigger warning: graphic violence, sodomy, and torture. Dubliners? Trigger warning: pedophilia.
Aaron R. Hanlon, an assistant professor at Georgetown University agrees with the Columbia students’ plea:
Trigger warnings are important because no matter how knowledgeable and comfortable professors are with the intellectually and emotionally challenging material we teach, our students are real people with real histories and concerns. They do indeed want to be challenged—to be made uncomfortable by literature—but it’s our job as professors to do more than just expose them to difficult ideas. It’s our job to help see them through that exposure.
But there’s a difference between seeing students through difficulty and putting a warning sticker on the books they’ve been assigned. It’s a professor’s responsibility to create a safe environment for discussion, not to anticipate each student’s reaction (each bring his own “real histories and concerns” to the classroom) to each book on the syllabus. In fact, those warnings might even have more exclusionary consequences by acknowledging—and implicitly legitimizing—some reactions but, inevitably, omitting others.
Life is full of triggers. For The Guardian, Lori Horvitz writes:
I want to tell my students: sometimes I might not warn you. Not out of malice, but because I care. Because the outside world is full of triggers. Because any number of things, at any point of any day – the first few notes of a pop song, or the smell of french fries, or looking into the eyes of the man behind you at the bank – can trigger you. And you need to be ready and strong. You need to be prepared.
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.