I’d only heard the term a week ago. I was talking to a friend who’s finishing up his PhD, and he’d mentioned how more and more essays at his college were beginning with “trigger warnings” to warn “sensitive students” that some of the content they were about to encounter might disturb them.
At the time I thought it a bit weird, but then forgot about it until I came across the topic again in an excellent piece by Jenny Jarvie in last month’s New Republic.
Let me give you an example. Here’s a trigger warning before a blog post about an anti-gay incident on the NYC subway:
So trigger warnings are basically a content warning label, not unlike those TV Parental Guidelines you see before any television show heavier than the Teletubbies.
Jarvie explains the origin of trigger warnings:
Initially, trigger warnings were used in self-help and feminist forums to help readers who might have post traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks.
Jarvie goes on to show how trigger warnings have spread far beyond self-help and feminist forums. For example, here’s a post about clubbing that includes a warning label about “alcohol.”
And here’s a short tumblr post with a trigger warning about “insects”:
As Jarvie explains, the warnings have now spread to college classes, course syllabi, college newspapers, promotional material for plays, and even poetry slams. This one, from the Amherst Student, the independent student paper of Amherst College, seems a bit unnecessary, as the title should have given things away:
I have to agree with Jarvie, who sees all of this as tending towards shutting down debate:
What’s more, the fear of triggers risks narrowing what we’re exposed to. Raechel Tiffe, an assistant professor in Communication Arts and Sciences at Merrimack College, Massachusetts, described a lesson in which she thought everything had gone well, until a student approached her about a clip from the television musical comedy, “Glee,” in which a student commits suicide. For Tiffe, who uses trigger warnings for sexual assault and rape, the incident was a “teaching moment”—not for the students, but for her to be more aware of the breadth of students’ sensitivities.
As academics become more preoccupied with students’ feelings of harm, they risk opening the door to a never-ending litany of requests. Last month, students at Wellesley College protested a sculpture of a man in his underwear because, according to the Change.org petition, it was a source of “triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault.” While the petition acknowledged the sculpture may not disturb everyone on campus, it insisted we share a “responsibility to pay attention to and attempt to answer the needs of all of our community members.” Even after the artist explained that the figure was supposed to be sleepwalking, students continued to insist it be moved indoors.
Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.
And this is really part of a larger problem the left (maybe all of America and all intellectual discourse) is facing. The larger push to shut down any interlocutor who might say something you don’t agree with. We saw this in full view during the recent #CancelColbert brouhaha in which an Asian-American activist, Suey Park, got upset at progressive satirist Stephen Colbert‘s segment taking on the Washington Redskins, and thus demanded that Colbert’s show be canceled.
Putting aside for a moment whether Park was right about Colbert’s “racism” (I don’t think she was), what I found interesting were her responses to anyone who disagreed her: They were racist and sexist, and tended to have the effect of shutting her critics down. This is something I’ve experienced a good deal in the past few years, mostly on transgender and racial issues, but I’m sure it’s out there on a host of lefty topics. Quite often, when someone disagrees with your position, they hone in on the fact that you’re white, a man, and/or gay to “prove” that your argument is incorrect, unworthy of response, and that you and your entire community, race and gender are horrible human beings.
To wit: Park appeared on HuffPostLive to talk about the effort, and immediately took offense to HuffPost host Josh Zepps. Zepps’ questioning made clear from the beginning that he was skeptical of Park’s position, but anyone who has been interviewed by Zepps (I have) knows that this is his schtick, and it’s a rather effective approach for pushing your guest to defend her position, and it simply make for a more lively interview.
Well, Park was having none of it. She proceeded to tell Zepp that because he was white, and a man, he wasn’t entitled to an opinion on the topic:
SUEY PARK: I feel like it’s incredibly patronizing of you to paint these questions this way, especially as a white man, I don’t expect you to be able to understand what people of color are actually saying with regards to #CancelColbert.
HUFFPO’S JOSH ZEPPS: Suey, being a white man doesn’t prevent me from being able to think, and prevent me from being able to have reasoned perspectives on things. I didn’t give up my right to have an intellectual conversation when I was born.
SUEY PARK: White men definitely feel like they’re entitled to talk over me, they definitely feel like they’re entitled to kind of minimalize my experience. And they definitely feel like they are somehow exempt and so logical as compared to women who are painted as emotional, right?
Park’s negative generalizations about white people aren’t limited to Zepps. She also has issues with “white gay men.”
In both cases, Park used a racist attack to try shut down her intellectual opponent. But her attack was more than simply racist (and sexist, actually). It was centered around her own supposed victimization: By disagreeing with her you were per se victimizing her. Therefore your only options were to continue “victimizing her,” and thus prove what a typically-awful white, man, or gay person you are, or stop talking all together. (I’m not going to spend any more time on Park, but if you’d like to read more, Joslyn Stevens, who isn’t a gay white man, has apparently been following Park’ “work” for a while now – her recent essay on Suey Park is quite a read.)
Another popular tack for shutting down disagreement is to claim that only representatives of the offended group in question can judge whether an offense has been committed (though they never quite explain what happens to this Papal-like infallibility when members of the same community disagree with each other on a topic – perhaps they all turn to butter). The corollary to that, is that if you ask them to prove their case, you’re – you guessed it – oppressing them.
I had this come up a good ten years ago, when I was asked to speak on a panel about sexism among “A-list male bloggers.” Being the only “A-list male blogger” invited to be on the panel, I was a bit concerned from the git-go about what I was walking into. To make a long story short, I’d suggested that the panel might start off by talking a little about why it is that some women feel that there is sexism, or a sexist environment, among the top political blogs – basically, rather than assume we’re all a bunch of sexist pigs, I thought the panel might start by proving its premise.
I was informed that it impolitic to ask a woman to prove her own oppression. That per se if a woman says she is being treated in a sexist manner, she is. And that if you ask her to prove her case, that’s further sexist oppression. I was given an analogy: sexual harassment in the workplace. If a woman says she’s been sexually harassed, she has been sexually harassed, I was told. She doesn’t need to prove her case. (Courts of law and HR departments might beg to differ.)
Needless to say, I didn’t appear on that panel. But it was my first-run in with the almost-beautiful architecture of these arguments, and the way they to attempt to automatically shut down any dissent.
Here’s Suey Park’s HuffPostLive appearance: