Just Musing: Trigger Warnings

I’ve been reading about the phrase “trigger warnings” recently. Here’s a few bulleted links:

I do not work in academia, and I admit I am late to the game. [I doubt academia or the blogosphere held their collective breaths in anticipation for my thoughts.]

Apparently trigger warnings started in the blogosphere and carried over into academia. In short, students want their required reading to brief them in advance with the words “trigger warnings ahead” or “trigger warning: reading contains child abuse, racism, rape, <<i.e., insert other violence or bad behavior that’s upsetting here>>.”

I guess I understand where some young adults are coming from to expect trigger warnings, or TWs. If he or she has grown up seeing disclaimer-type statements in a lot of situations in life, they might think they belong everywhere, in every situation.

For example:

  • The evening news has made a point to brief viewers about graphic images being shown for years.
  • Movies, TV, and video games get ratings that imply their content’s intensity. Some shows, like Family Guy, even have a list of potential content shown before its episodes air, even in syndication aka “reruns”
  • Just about every music album in certain genres contains a “Parental Advisory” sticker, so do many popular video games
  • We live in an age where food labels are getting a revamp for genetically-modified organisms, gluten, soy, and other content.
  • Drug ads list all potential side effects.

It’s safe to say warnings are pretty ubiquitous in our daily lives here in the States. Add in terms and conditions statements for software, one could easily say we all suffer from some form of ‘briefing fatigue’.

Today’s collegiates certainly aren’t the first generation of college students to have members who have experienced trauma, but they may be the first to request special treatment by their teachers because some students have had that trauma and the rest just don’t want to get worked up by their reading, maybe?

When older people, myself included, read this development, they shake their heads for lots of reasons. Here are mine:

  • IT’S A PRIVATE MATTER. If a student who suffered trauma is concerned about their experiences making their classwork difficult to accomplish, I think that is a private matter between a teacher and the student. It’s possible the student should opt for a different class, if not a different major. Hopefully they aren’t an English major, because they’ll be having a lot of talks with a lot of professors about reading material ahead of them. In the time it took to rework lesson plans in multiple classes, the student could have earned an additional degree.
  • FEASIBILITY. I think it’s unrealistic if not impossible to produce an all-encompassing trigger warning statement for classes of 50-200 individuals that are reading 5-10 books, maybe more. Everyone’s triggers are different, and one person’s trigger is another’s minor annoyance.
  • LIFE COMES WITH NO TRIGGER WARNINGS, WHY SHOULD READING ABOUT SOMEONE ELSE’S LIFE? Life’s major changes come with no trigger warning, why should literature written about someone’s life experiences? Epic moments are not all happy, but they are unforgettable. They shape each one of us. Usually what’s uncomfortable today is something a person is thankful for tomorrow, if for no other reason than because of what he/she learned from these experiences about him or herself. Now deceased authors shared their experiences in the hopes of creating a better future. Future generations covering their ears or turning a blind eye on darker parts of history or someone’s life because these stories are hard to hear are doing their ancestors a disservice and quite possibly, fumbling their role in creating a better world in their own lifetime. If you can’t accept the truth of the past, how do you move things forward for the future?
  • STUDENTS CHEATING THEMSELVES OF THE JOYS OF READING AND WRITING CRITICALLY aka WHY A STUDENT PAYS TO GO TO A FOUR YEAR COLLEGE VERSUS CAREER PREP SCHOOLING. Students are cheating themselves of what a good college program is supposed to do for each of them in their lives if they want a disclaimer or TV guide synopsis of their required readings’ major plot points before doing the reading of the actual books. Reading about racism and or rape bothers you? Thank goodness, that means you’re human and capable of empathy. Fight those things in real life, don’t turn your frustration on books about things that already happened you can’t change. To “photoshop” the past means creating myth.
  • TRIGGER WARNINGS (TWs) ARE CONSIDERATE BUT NOT EMPATHETIC OF THE READER, AND NOT CONSIDERATE OR EMPATHETIC TO THE BLOGGER (OR OTHER WRITER.) The blogger (in bullet 3 at the top) suggested that it’s not censorship to include trigger warnings in blogposts because it’s empathetic for the reader. My problem with this is, blogs, like all written work, are intended to be read in full. Blogposts build connections and have emotional impact, whether the reader chooses to like them, comment on them, or neither. Until one party shares our experiences with the others, I don’t think empathy occurs at all. A blogger wrote because they had experiences they felt compelled to share, as do authors and writers, both past and present. Why would someone write a book, and then give readers the copout to just read plot points? What about the journey or the character who experienced these things, and how those experiences shaped them? That can just be fast-forwarded through?When I encounter people that repeatedly demand empathy from others, I fear they presume they are the only ones who possess feelings or warrant empathy. Worded another way, they expect and demand to receive empathy, but lack the interest or concern to provide empathy to others. I feel true empathy is all-persons-inclusive, not some-persons-inclusive.
  • Which reminds me, that I keep hearing what a empathy deficit exists in our culture, and I truly believe part of is because some kids were denied arts, literature, and theater exposure growing up. They haven’t had to think once about how others feel, why those others’ feel as they do, and others’ life experiences. As these children become grownups, they may gain the money, the time, or both to seek the arts out, but there’s an allergy or an aversion to them. If art exists for them at all, it’s just pretty stuff that doesn’t require analysis, self-reflection, critical thought or feeling. It’s as if the now-grown child thinks, if my parents, school, or church didn’t make something a priority, it’s not important at all. It may be the devil leading me astray so I can’t be bothered with it, whatever it is. What a missed opportunity. What a waste.

Matthew Weiner was on the Tavis Smiley show the other night (May 23) talking about how easy it’s become for the affluent to function in a very closed off little privileged bubble, anything that might pepper their bubble’s surface, disrupt their American brahmin worldview, has never been easier to avoid. It’s another example of an avenue for empathy are being closed off.

Trigger warning–that’s both a sad and dangerous phenomenon. Revolution inevitable. If people don’t know each other, don’t understand each other, or care to understand each other, it’s easier to demonize the other party. The results aren’t pretty.



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