Happy Trails, Trigger!
Trigger warning! The New York Times reports about American undergrads pushing to have professors issue “trigger warnings” for great books that might be psychologically upsetting to students who have experienced trauma. Professors, a bit traumatized by ongoing efforts to turn their profession into a temp position and by those undergraduates who already see reading books as traumatic, have responded with predictable fretfulness, which suggests that university policies on triggering material should be preceded by trigger warnings of their own.
The roots of our understanding of trauma go back to the nineteenth century and early survivors of railway crashes who had gotten out physically unscathed, but were reporting strange psychological responses, such as waking screaming in the night, full-blown panic at reminders of the event, and so on, months and even years later. Initially an interesting but somewhat rare psychological phenomenon, post-traumatic stress disorders were suddenly very prevalent among the men returning from the First World War, and thus studied more extensively. With the century of wars, trauma was democratized, and civilians also got the opportunity to be traumatized.
What constitutes a trauma was also necessarily democratized. Clearly, victims of rape and sexual assault have also experienced a trauma and were the initial focus of “trigger warnings” first used on feminist blogs to indicate that they might find the following post triggering. In the universities, and likely on the blogs, the group of potentially triggered people has been extended to include targets of violence, racism, sexism, and homophobia, the transgendered, handicapped, survivors of domestic violence, former colonial subjects, and potentially any group whose members are more likely than average to have been victimized. Strangely lacking is much talk about trigger warnings for war veterans, who have been coming back in recent years reporting record levels of psychological trauma to a society already awash in images of mechanized destruction. Perhaps the supposition is they elected to be traumatized.
For all the troubling implications, there is something charmingly old-fashioned about the idea that literature can be affecting and even frightening, and it’s a bit unexpected among a generation of media addicts largely indifferent to books. Much more predictable is the suggestion that we be permitted to opt out of cultural experiences that we find upsetting. Periodically, maybe too periodically, North Americans remind one of Mme de Staël’s biting description of Napoleon as an “ideaphobe”. But let’s remember that many professors, and especially adjuncts, already shy away from assigning long works of fiction because it’s simply accepted that undergraduates won’t read them. This just seems a more formal, even respectable, way of opting out of the trauma of reading.
Moreover, the notion that university education should challenge and provoke, and even upset, young people is perhaps a historical anomaly, most popular in times of social upheaval when young people already seek to experience social change and the turmoil that goes with it. Remember that university education is a characteristically bourgeois undertaking and the bourgeois mindset (which incidentally created nearly everything of value in our society) tends to react violently when confronted with unpleasant or upsetting ideas. The children of the me generation bourgeoisie could be expected to shy away from directly confronting oppression and victimization, preferring instead to be warned away from reminders that they exist.
Nevertheless, we have an admirable tendency to correct these inevitable excesses with humor and an equally inevitable outrage about the outrages of others. One does not predict a sudden outbreak of cosmopolitanism any time soon, but at least the great books will continue to be read. Just maybe not in universities.
Endnote: I was first alerted to this story by Susie Bright, who writes:
“Trigger warning demands and required reading protests are the consequence of a reading-adverse, low-literacy, student pop, perversely paired with high entitlement. Students who’ve never read for pleasure or curiosity, who’ve only “read” textbook paragraphs for school– don’t have a book in their home. Then, when college arrives and they’re asked to delve into real stories and essays, they are overwhelmed by the power of reading to…you know… affect you. Remember when as a kid you first read something mind-expanding and you struggled to comprehend and discuss it? –Or you were so overcome with its power you walked around in a daze? These trigger-shy young adults are experiencing this at 20 instead of 10, and mistake an intellectual life passage for a disease. Their only ill is illiteracy. “