In case you missed it, trigger warnings are all over the news right now (Google "trigger warnings" for proof), and City Paper ran a column last week by former CofC professor John Warner, who praised their practice.
The basic definition of a trigger warning, from the Oxford English Dictionary is, "A statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material." Trigger warnings have been discussed widely in recent years, primarily in the context of their use on college campuses.
I don't believe in trigger warnings.
I understand why some people use trigger warnings, and in his CP column "Pull the Trigger," Warner makes valid points in favor of the practice. He mentions students who appreciated his warnings, acknowledging the traumatic effect of certain stories and words on veterans and Christians, respectively.
As neither a veteran nor a Christian, I can't speak to the efficacy of those specific trigger warnings, but as a human being, I can say one thing: we can handle it.
It's as simple as that. If college students, at 18-years-old, don't know that they will encounter sometimes troubling points of view in the real world, then I am truly surprised they even made it to college.
Did y'all never read The Odyssey in ninth grade English class? That shit is violent.
I'm not being insensitive. I've suffered from some troubling moments in my life, too. When I read scenes or watch movies that evoke, as Warner says, "the worst moment" of my life, I take a deep breath and either stop reading, or push forward.
In thinking that students are not capable of handling their personal demons you insult not only their intelligence, but all of the work they've put in to make it as far as a college classroom.
It's worth noting that trigger warnings, applied as they are defined, are different from social graces used in everyday life. Trigger warnings do not apply to someone's sense of human decency or social decorum. Just because I don't think a book should have a warning sign taped to the front, doesn't mean that I think a professor should greet his class with bigoted statements and the occasional, 'Hey, assholes!' How one acts in society has little bearing on how one interacts with pieces of art and literature.
I graduated from college three years ago. I don't remember any professor ever prefacing a class with a trigger warning — and I took a lot of Lit classes. I do remember sitting around in discussion groups, passionately agreeing and disagreeing with my peers, feeling both frustrated and elated at the possibilities each one of us considered. We were men and women, black and white, gay and straight. We were reading the same books and while we all had different ideas about them, we all knew they were worthy of our attention.
We survived college without trigger warnings. Heck, we may have even thrived because we didn't have them.
Slate ran a story on Mon. Sept. 5, "The Trapdoor of Trigger Warnings," which discusses the science of trauma and how it can enlighten the trigger warning debate. The article talks about how words can both help and hurt people struggling with PTSD: Certain words can trigger feelings of panic, but those same words, if experienced enough, can also help someone get over traumatic situations.
I certainly think someone struggling with PTSD should seek the proper help, but I don't think one person's trauma should define how teachers lead their classrooms. There are other campus resources — counseling, help groups, and hotlines, that can benefit struggling students.
"Words, which open trapdoors and produce nemeses from the past, have an uncanny power to hurt us. But they can also be our salvation," writes Katy Waldman in Slate.
She's right, words are powerful. Don't students deserve the right to decide how they feel about them?