There is real harm in utilizing general trigger warnings in the classroom. Oberlin College recommends that its faculty “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals”. When material is simply too important to take out entirely, the college recommends trigger warnings. For example, Oberlin says, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a great and important book, but:
… it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.
Students should be duly warned by the professor writing, for example, “Trigger warning: This book contains a scene of suicide.”
On its face, that sounds fine (except for students who hate literary spoilers). But a trigger warning for what Oberlin identified as the book’s common triggers – racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide (and more!) – sets the tone for reading and understanding the book. It skews students’ perceptions. It highlights particular issues as necessarily more upsetting than others, and directs students to focus on particular themes that have been singled out by the professor as traumatic.
At Rutgers, a student urged professors to use trigger warnings as a sort of Solomonic baby-splitting between two apparently equally bad choices: banning certain texts or introducing works that may cause psychological distress. Works he mentioned as particularly triggering include F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. The warnings would be passage-by-passage, and effectively reach “a compromise between protecting students and defending their civil liberties”.
But the space between comfort and freedom is not actually where universities should seek to situate college students. Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings don’t just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with “that’s triggering”. Students should – and do – have the right to walk out of any classroom. But students should also accept the challenge of exploring their own beliefs and responding to disagreement. Trigger warnings, of course, don’t always shut down that kind of interrogation, but if feminist blogs are any example, they quickly become a way to short-circuit uncomfortable, unpopular or offensive arguments.
That should concern those of us who love literature, but it should particularly trouble the feminist and anti-racist bookworms among us. Trigger warnings are largely perceived as protecting young women and, to a lesser extent, other marginalized groups – people of color, LGBT people, people with mental illnesses. That the warnings hinge on topics that are more likely to affect the lives of marginalized groups contributes to the general perception of members of those groups as weak, vulnerable and “other”.
The kinds of suffering typically imaged and experienced in the white western male realm – war, intra-male violence – are standard. Traumas that impact women, people of color, LGBT people, the mentally ill and other groups whose collective lives far outnumber those most often canonized in the American or European classroom are set apart as different, as particularly traumatizing. Trigger warnings imply that our experiences are so unusual the pages detailing our lives can only be turned while wearing kid gloves.
There’s a hierarchy of trauma there, as well as a dangerous assumption of inherent difference. There’s a reinforcement of the toxic messages young women have gotten our entire lives: that we’re inherently vulnerable.
And there’s something lost when students are warned before they read Achebe or Diaz or Woolf, and when they read those writers first through the lens of trauma and fear
(tw: child sexual abuse)
No. I don’t agree.
I was at a poetry slam and was looking forward to competing. There were awesome poets there and the prize was 150 dollars. My friends were with me but enemies were also present. The room was packed the only exit was at the back of the room. To leave you would have to walk down the center aisle.
People performed their pieces and I was preparing to go when a thin dark woman with a raspy voice and long dreadlocks begins her piece that describes an act the child sexual abuse.
I was paralized. I couldn’t just leave and bring attention to myself. All those people would know why I was leaving. And I also couldn’t move in general. I had begun sobbing and shaking. And while my friends tried to comfort me there was nothing I could do.
It ruined my evening….my weekend. It was all I could think about.
Trigger warnings are necessary because they can prevent you from being exposed to content that can literally bring to mind traumatic events in an instant, in a flash back.
it is disturbing that trauma and attempts to spare people from avoiding it is being trivialized or described as a hindrance.
of course a white woman thinks it’s ridiculous to put trigger warnings on racism and colonialism. The only person establishing a hierarchy trauma is Jill Filipovic, by basically saying that nothing that doesn’t affect her directly as a white woman (notice how she doesn’t say anything about rape or misogyny?) deserves a trigger warning and she’s not even being shady about it, it’s pretty much all up front - notice also how the two educational institutions she’s “taking to task” are ones which has been pretty heavily crucified in recent years for their lack of inclusivity.
This isn’t about defending literation from editorialization or censorship, it’s about, unsurprisingly, upholding the virtue of white femininity
Yeah, I could see how it would be true that it draws attention to some subjects, makes it hard to be open to the material but also… Oh fucking well?? I would rather a spoiler irritate one student or have them “miss” other points of the book (uhm, if they’re actually reading, that doesn’t happen often) than a sudden mention of abuse send another into a panicked, fight-flight response that they then feel shamed into ignoring.
Like come on.
As black feminists from the ’70s onward sought to expand racial, gender and economic equality for women of color, they found themselves being left out of mainstream conversations about equal pay and reproductive rights. Their stories were left untold in a women’s rights movement, led by mainly white women. Tired of being silenced and fueled by an international movement for human rights, they began the reproductive justice movement to bring to light the fact that communities of color lack access to basic healthcare and pregnancy options, including the opportunity to raise our children with dignity. They demanded that our stories be heard, and their demands still affect how we think about policy today.
Never forget, it was black women who developed “reproductive justice" and a black woman who coined "intersectionality.” Black women have long been at the forefront of civil rights and social justice movements, yet it’s our white activists that get the spotlight.
And I can almost guarantee that the white feminists of yore silenced black feminists with “well all of this infighting won’t get us anywhere.”
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