I’ve spent enough time ranting about religious hokum and conservative chicanery that a casual reader could be forgiven for thinking I’m some kind of self-righteous, bleeding-heart lefty. Personally, I like to think that my ideological biases – whatever they may be – are rooted in the rational analysis of empirical evidence. I try not to take a strong stance on something unless I think I have good reason for doing so. Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that my sympathies aren’t more closely aligned with those on the left end of the political spectrum then they are with those on the raving end of intellectual stagnation that is the modern conservative right. The reasons for this are simple. For the most part, the conservative outlook is purely ideological. It is about how people believe the world ought to be, irrespective of any (and very often all) available facts about the way the world actually is.
Fortunately, whenever my feelings of affinity for the ideological left become too strong, something usually comes along to remind me that much of what falls into the broad classificatory scheme of liberalism is just as deeply rooted in ideological preferences about how people think things should be as any conservative notions about the rationality of unregulated markets and the purity self-interest as motive for social action. Case in point: the rise of so-called “trigger warnings”, thoughtfully discussed Jenny Jarvie’s March piece in The New Republic.
Clearly I don’t spend enough time visiting forums populated by victims of violent trauma or afflicted with an overactive sense of political sensitivity, because I had no idea trigger warnings had become a topic of debate prior to reading Jarvie’s essay. In the abstract, trigger warnings are designed to steer people away from material that might stir up unpleasant memories regarding past experiences. Situated in the appropriate context, trigger warnings appear a sensible courtesy motivated by feelings of compassion and empathy. Unfortunately, a noble seed seems to have grown into a rather noxious weed, as trigger warnings have begun to crop up college campuses – outside the blogosphere in which they were incubated.
In the early months of 2014, students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, passed a resolution urging faculty members to employ trigger warnings before assigning or discussing material that might offend certain student’s sensibilities. There are definitely people out there who have experienced horrible trauma in their lives. Victims of sexual violence and combat veterans, for instance, have probably seen the most vicious human savagery imaginable. Traumatic experiences are bound to leave tender spots in their wake, wounds easily aggravated by provocative words and imagery.
Problematic in this is that there are no objective criteria defining what is and is not a trigger. What words or phrases count as triggers? What do those words or phrases trigger? What types of people with what kinds of histories should trigger warnings be constructed to protect? As Jarvie points out, triggers aren’t particularly amenable to discrete classification or prediction – they can be tied to simple, subtle cues or complex arrays of sensory information. Likewise, the responses they engender can vary widely. What is and is not a trigger is extraordinarily subjective. If we tip-toe around everything that anyone might find redolent of past trauma (real or perceived) then nothing is open for in depth discussion or debate. Jarvie writes:
Issuing caution on the basis of potential harm or insult doesn’t help us negotiate our reactions; it makes our dealings with others more fraught. As Breslin pointed out, trigger warnings can have the opposite of their intended effect, luring in sensitive people (and perhaps connoisseurs of graphic content, too). More importantly, they reinforce the fear of words by depicting an ever-expanding number of articles and books as dangerous and requiring of regulation. By framing more public spaces, from the Internet to the college classroom, as full of infinite yet ill-defined hazards, trigger warnings encourage us to think of ourselves as more weak and fragile than we really are.
Slippery slope arguments are, as the name might suggest, slippery. They are among the cheaper tools in the sophist’s toolkit and should be wielded with care. But in this case, I think the term applies. At some point, trigger warnings cross a line from polite consideration and begin to skirt the borders of ideological censorship as individuals attempt to cleans the social world of the things they find unsettling. In this sense, the idea of issuing trigger warnings whenever potentially controversial topics are going to be addressed in the classroom is well within the same ballpark as the idea that certain books should be banned because they risk offending certain people’s religious or moral sensibilities. The students that support the implementation of trigger warnings are toying with a mindset dangerously similar to that of the rigid prudes and rotten curmudgeons who recently pressured an Idaho school board into removing a controversial book from their curriculum. Both are notions that appeal primarily to intellectual cowards – people who cling to ideologies (feminism and obsequious political correctness in the case the former, fundamentalist Christianity and right-wing fascism in the case of the latter) as bastions of order and comfort in a sea of complex and conflicting ideas.
On a more fundamental level, trigger warnings are a plea for a sanitized world, a place where no one ever encounters anything that makes them feel an unwanted emotion. This, unfortunately, is a fantasy: the world is filled with unpleasant things, including an absolutely staggering amount of human suffering. Should we table all discussion of tragedy and despair until everyone present has affirmed their comfort with the subjects or left for greener pastures? In addition to being something of a worn out cowboy platitude, the idea that the world can be a tough place to carve out a living also happens to have considerable grounding in reality. The universe is indifferent to our sensitivities. Carnage and brutality are as much a part of nature as beauty and elegance. That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for the latter while attempting to minimize the former, but to highlight the cold reality that ugliness is a fact of life. Looked at in this way, it becomes readily apparent that the trigger warning movement is primarily a case of masturbatory activism. It is a product of WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) privilege – the sort of thing that postmodern narratives, like those at the core of this debate, are designed to subvert.
In my previous post, I wrote about how building a college around Christian dogma was absolutely inimical to the very purpose of higher education. So it is with trigger warnings. Certainly there are people out there who have experienced horrible things. Those clinically diagnosed with P.T.S.D. might well deserve special accommodations, but these can be worked out privately with their institutions and instructors. But most people are not going to fall into that camp. Blanket trigger warnings are an implicit endorsement of a socially constructed, infinitely malleable sense of victimization. It reeks of entitlement – that, as an American, people have an inalienable right to never have contact with anything that makes them twist and squirm. If the desire for such a sterilized existence is unrealistic, it is also a pitiable. If you can’t take a bit of discomfort in your academic career, you should probably just stay the fuck home. If you aren’t made to feel uncomfortable by some of the things you read and hear, you probably aren’t going to learn a damn thing. Testing and exceeding your boundaries, both ethical and ideological, is how you develop new perspectives, nurture empathy, and cultivate wisdom. Here, Jarvie’s words are eloquent:
Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration.
Personally, I have experienced profound insight and growth following periods in which I engaged with new ideas that left me untethered from the preconceptions I once held dear. Some folks have heaped a lot of ideas concerning propriety on the frail – if more or less well-intentioned – edifices of esoteric social theory, imbuing lofty reflections with the weight of moral imperative. Many of those ideas were forged out of a sense of intellectual curiosity, fortitude, and adventure. Now, a handful of liberal arts students, enamored of their convoluted ideas and expanding vocabularies, are willing to abandon all of that in favor of preserving their fragile sensibilities. Never let it be said that conservatives have a perfect monopoly on reactionary stupidity.
It has been pointed out to me that someone might read this entry and think it downplays sexual assault, both as a societal problem and as an experience of intense individual trauma. That is not the case. The statistics here are unequivocally grim. Even if they were not, the existence of even isolated cases of sexual assault should be considered socially unacceptable. So, to be clear, I think sexual assault is an absolutely horrific crime and its perpetrators are some of the most vile scum imaginable.
The point remains that trigger warnings aren’t a very practical way to address the legitimate emotional trauma of that type of experience. If an institution issues trigger warnings for one thing, fairness dictates that they must issue them for all potentially uncomfortable subject matter. The cravings of addicts can be triggered by a suite of stimuli, and the consequences of being triggered could be severe (up to and including death). Nevertheless, I don’t think issuing a trigger warning any time a class might address the topic of drugs or alcohol is reasonable. But more to the point, issuing a trigger warning any time drugs or alcohol come up will not guard addicts against potential triggers. It is a definitional problem – perhaps talking about drugs and alcohol will trigger cravings in an addict, or discussion of rape will trigger emotional pain in a victim, but so might any number of other stimuli pertinent to the context in which drug abuse or sexual assault occurred. Because of this, trigger warnings have the functional effect of sterilizing intellectual discourse without reliably protecting their intended targets.
As I said, people who have experienced real trauma and carry the resulting psychological scars should probably be allowed to work out some kind of accommodations with instructors. This is an issue that likely has more to do with the bizarre way western society treats psychological illness than it does with the propriety of trigger warnings. Trigger warnings in this case are at best a means of treating a symptom. The actual problems that trigger warnings might address are elsewhere. Which is what leads me to my concerns about trigger warnings as mechanism for ideological purification, rather than a legitimate means of helping individuals cope with past trauma.