The recent article in the Guardian about US students requesting trigger warnings on works of literature that could potentially trigger memories and feelings of trauma has been circulating with rather diverging opinions. This type of thing resonates differently with people depending on their experiences but also on how they’ve dealt with them. Nevertheless, comments are generally polarized, with little variation: mainly, by those who think trigger warnings are valuable and even necessary and those who staunchly disagree.
Steven Beattie, writer and critic and author of the blog That Shakespearean Rag, is one of the latter. He strongly disapproves of the idea of literature with warnings. He wrote:
“A draft trigger warning policy from Oberlin, quoted in Inside Higher Education, used Achebe’s acclaimed text as an example of a work which might require a warning, saying the novel was ‘a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.'”
FOR FUCK’S SAKE!
LIFE might as well come with a trigger warning.
Literature’s entire PURPOSE is to deal, honestly and forthrightly, with difficult and traumatic experiences in a fictional context. Doing so helps build empathy and understanding. It can also help people who have experienced similar trauma recognize that they are not alone. It need not be subject to warnings that it might trigger emotional responses in its readers. That is the POINT.
I’m inclined to agree, and I take it one step further: not only does it help people realize they are not alone and also many times show characters overcoming their issues, but it also can help the reader deal with their PTSD or triggers. The thing is, trauma and emotional distress is often specific to the individual, whether it’s regarding experiences of war, suicide, rape, murder, miscarriage, infidelity, bullying, loss of a loved one (including a pet), and even, yes, even vomiting. Where do we draw the line in being considerate of others’ sensitivities, or else risk every piece of literature having some sort of warning?
While considered by many a courtesy, I see TWs as yet creating the view that most literature is dangerous, something to be feared. There are few people in this world who have not suffered some kind of trauma, and then those who would deem some traumas worse or more valid than others—as do the warnings. Literature becomes rather unjustly categorized. Putting warnings on potentially disturbing literature not only segregates the work but also insults it and the author, sends the message that while authors have the right to write what they are moved to, they may be penalized for it. TWs do a great disservice to the literature in preforming people’s opinions and setting the tone for the reading experience, as well as pre-empting certain lines of discussion that more fully treat the literature. They strip readers of their ability to make their own, uninfluenced decisions, and ultimately prevent readers, even those who might experience triggers, from a more enriching experience. This cheats the author, too, whose work it was to write a story that people could relate to and that evoked emotion. And all of these sound suspiciously like the issues of censorship. Perhaps most important, putting warnings on literature comes too close to coddling and actually even setting apart trauma sufferers as Others, rather than empathizing.
I’m not saying that people who want trigger warnings are weak and should sac up. I am saying, however, aside from what I think TWs do to literature (above), that we have to question what’s behind the avoidance. At the risk of sounding like a therapist, this isn’t really about the literature, but rather ourselves. We all have our own ways of dealing with trauma, our own levels of emotional depth of experience, of preparation for dealing with it. But the significant issue in this particular case, regardless, is fear.
For 15 years I suffered from such severe panic and anxiety attacks that I became physically paralyzed at times, and also unable to do many things, like ride public transport or drive on the highway, or go many places, like parties or movies or the theatre or the fucking food court—even out for a walk on our street. Several childhood traumas led to this. I understand fear. And triggers. And I get what it’s like to live in fear of being triggered. It can be completely debilitating. It is a strain on you and those you love. It’s torture.
I understand that trigger warnings on books are meant to alert people so that those who don’t want to read don’t have to, or they can try and prepare themselves. The thing is, again, literature, art in general, reflects us, the good and the bad. If we try and cover all the bad to help people avoid triggers, that doesn’t leave us with much for English class. Fear limits us. Instead, why can’t we take the opportunity in studying the literature to examine and question the issues within, even take a stand or be moved to action? to strengthen ourselves?
Confronting and acknowledging trauma and the feelings that arise from it is, ultimately, helpful. I can say this from experience. It facilitates mental and emotional health and fosters knowledge and the learning process. Discussion about it is also good thing—this is (isn’t it?) why we go to university or college in the first place—to learn, to grow, to question. While it worked to promote equality and discourage stigmatization, university, for me, was never a safe place (not only because I was one of the very few non-Dutch students and also the only Catholic in a Protestant school at the time); it was yet meant to challenge, and by god, it did. As one reader of Steven’s comment pointed out, challenging and triggering are two different things. This is true, but applying trigger warnings invariably negates challenge. Instead, it leaves us with only benign literature.
When I was in uni, one student refused to read Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage for our contemporary lit class because, once he found out what it was about, he said it would insult his Christian beliefs. This guy not only segregated himself but missed out on a formative experience because he assumed what the book was about and what Findley was saying with it: he remained fearful of being questioned, which meant he was never prepared with valid answers. I see this as somewhat similar to what I’m discussing here: by avoiding literature, we stunt ourselves.
Literature that examines the dark side of what it means to be human is a gift. In a classroom, it’s a tool we can use to gain perspective and understanding, to broaden our knowledge of issues, to intelligently form defensive and offensive positions, to cultivate empathy and space for healing. By applying trigger warnings, we close the doors on bettering ourselves. We perpetuate avoidance, fear of both the known and unknown. We cut off opportunity to dialogue about culture, power politics, heinous crimes, human tragedy, all part of the lives we lead. We separate ourselves from others who have suffered. We label people as too fragile. We label authors as offensive. We categorize literature as threatening or safe. We change the point of literature entirely. In that case, why take the class at all?