I Need a Trigger Warning on Trigger Warnings

May 6, 2015

By Michael Rubin at Commentary Magazine

I have to admit, the first time I heard about trigger warnings, I thought they were a joke. In short, trigger warnings assume that students are so infantile that they cannot handle classroom discussion or themes in great literature that push them beyond their comfort zone. Greg Lukianoff, the president of theFoundation for Individual Rights in Education (about whose work I previously blogged here), discusses trigger warnings in Freedom from Speech, his new Encounter Broadside booklet:

In May 2014, the New York Times called attention to a new arrival on the college campus: trigger warnings. Seemingly overnight, colleges and universities across America have begun fielding student demands that their professors issue content warnings before covering any material that might evoke a negative emotional response…. By way of illustration, the Times article pointed to a Rutgers’ student’s op-ed requesting trigger warnings for The Great Gatsby, which apparently “possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”

Lukianoff, a critic of the warnings, explains that “trigger warnings…are generally billed as a way to help those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious mental-health condition—before reading the type of material that any college student should expect to encounter on any college campus.” US News & World Report“Debate Club” tackled the issue; it became one of its most popular subjects. Readingthe defense of “trigger warnings” is a [trigger: may be troubling to Parkinson Disease sufferings, epileptics, and those currently being electrocuted] head-shaking experience.

Here’s the latest example of trigger warnings in the news, courtesy of a student op-edin the [trigger: may be upsetting to those who scored below 2150 on their SATs and so couldn’t get into a B-list Ivy or had too much sense to waste their money] Columbia Spectator demanding trigger warnings for Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s been almost 2,000 years since he penned his masterpiece, and generations of students [trigger: may be troubling for those who have a phobia about math]—millions upon millions—have read his mythological and poetic epic without suffering [trigger: may be troubling to those who have suffered mental breakdowns] mental breakdown. But perhaps the current generation is different. Either they are more sensitive than any who came before them, or they have succumbed to “crazy chic,” where mental health becomes something to shun while mental hypochondria becomes a badge of honor. Reading Ovid is not the same thing as sending a [trigger: may be distressing for anyone who doesn’t believe politics should trump etymology] Womyn’s Studies professor to an Andrew Dice Clay concert.

Perhaps I started this post with a snarky attitude, and for that I am [trigger: would be upsetting to psychopaths who lack emotion if they didn’t lack emotion] sorry. But, I’ve come to recognize the logic behind trigger warnings. Therefore, a modest proposal: All trigger warnings should have a trigger warning so that no one who has experienced or fled from a repressive society might suffer post-traumatic stress reminding them of the authoritarian, Orwellian oppression from which they fled. Millions of people in the countries which comprised the Soviet Union, as well as in China, Cambodia, and Eastern Europe, not to mention tens of thousands of people in Iran, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Eritrea have lost loved ones or spent time in prison/re-education camps for not abiding by the state’s determination of what they should think and believe. Trigger warnings, even if well intentioned, might remind them of this oppressive and sometimes lethal political correctness and cause undue stress. Accordingly, in order to protect the mental well-being of those who value liberty, intellectual freedom, and oppose censorship, perhaps it’s time to agree to put trigger warnings ahead of trigger warnings to ensure that no one is inadvertently stressed out by the decline in mental and intellectual maturity and the infantilization of society which trigger warnings represent.