Trigger Warning: Discussion of Trigger Warnings

It often strikes me that the contretemps around TW is miscast in crucial ways. The business of whether or not students are “coddled” and the like entirely misses the sort of discomfort many of us feel about the perfectly reasonable impulse to extend sympathy to students. It’s not only the equally reasonable intuition that education, if it’s worth the name, is by definition disturbing and anxiety-inducing. It’s also the fact that the practice arises at a specific historical moment and seems to have an elective affinity for certain kinds of teachers and students.
I’m thinking that when I was in college, for example, works by African-American or female authors, as well as those from the colonial and postcolonial world, had to be forced onto syllabi—works filled with events that should have been profoundly disturbing to the average white student and supposed to offer points of identification for students of color, women, and sexual minorities. That struggle presupposed both that the white majority *needed* to have its privilege disturbed, and that members of the communities this work represented would *benefit* from having these disturbing experiences made public and salient.
That was the progressive orientation of the time. And it is only now, once much of this work has been accomplished, that we are beginning to worry about events common in *all* literary and cultural output as potentially disturbing to “some” students. Not only does this turn of events effectively erase crucial differences among fictional events and their collegiate audiences, but this new form of attention to them tends overwhelmingly to come from white, middle-class teachers and students. The public debate around TW smacks of white privilege in a way that undercuts those perfectly reasonable claims earnestly made on behalf of student safety.
On a personal note, I say all this as someone who has endured a considerable amount of physical and emotional violence on account of my identity, who has lived for years in a situation where my and my family’s safety was subject to the whims of others at every moment, and who has been “triggered”—that is, thrown into debilitating emotional crisis—more than once by events depicted in works of fiction. Still, it had never occurred to me that anyone—an author, a filmmaker, a musician, a teacher, a public speaker—owes me a warning, not because I refuse to be coddled, but because I’d be embarrassed to have my sensibilities singled out. I don’t feel special on account of my personal history, and I don’t like the implication that I might be.

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