I’ve been reading about so-called trigger warnings for a year or two now, but have been in denial about their existence on college campuses and throughout academia. Unfortunately, they’re real. Before most professors now talk about anything graphic or potentially upsetting to a student, they warn the students that the topic will include certain “trigger” topics and then let the students have a moment or two to opt out and leave the lecture hall rather than participate in the discussion. Even college papers – and news papers – now use #tw to warn readers of the potentially upsetting topics within.
Racism, rape, abuse, violence, torture, homophobia, the holocaust, war, basically all the horrible parts of being human. National Public Radio did a recent survey and found that roughly 50% of college professors now use trigger warnings before potentially upsetting lectures: “Our respondents were most likely to say they had used trigger warnings in reference to sexual or violent material. Racially, politically, or religiously charged topics were mentioned less often.”
Now let’s be fair, there are definitely warnings and labels on material we consume that essentially already act as trigger warnings. For example, TV and movie ratings, or the “parental advisory” sticker on a music CD or download track.
What bothers me the most about the whole idea in a college classroom, however, is that the intention doesn’t seem to be prepping students for a potentially tough or controversial discussion but rather for them to have tacit permission to avoid the discussion entirely by walking out.
The Rutgers student paper, The Daily Targum, says it this way: “Giving college students some type of warning before viewing or reading provoking or triggering material is important”, though they suggest that “putting a disclaimer on the syllabus and making an announcement the first day of class should suffice as a trigger warning for many students.”
The whole concept of trigger warnings prior to difficult or controversial subjects is just another facet of the coddling of our youth, however. Life is tough, bad things happen, we all need to learn how to get beyond the hurt, the pain, the inequality and make our own way in the world. Otherwise we just continue to nurture a generation of young adults who won’t have the fortitude and courage to truly handle difficult times because life itself most assuredly doesn’t have trigger warnings before horrible things happen.
I’m not alone in this perspective either. No less an august institution than the University of Chicago recently came out and said that it explicitly does not support any sort of trigger warnings in its classrooms. Excerpting from a letter sent to all incoming 2016-2017 freshmen: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Don’t think that the world of academia has become that touchy and fragile? Hollywood in Toto highlights the risk associated with comedians performing on a modern college, noting that “The PC problem is worst on the modern college campus. It’s not just the students who can’t take an opinion that doesn’t square with university groupthink. School administrators are equally at fault, slamming the door shut on opinions they deem offensive.”
Heck, even supporting Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump on campus can be considered a hate crime at some institutions. I kid you not. A student chalked “Trump 2016” on a sidewalk at Emory University and, as the DailyCaller reports: “After witnessing the horrific message, several students now feel “unsafe” on campus and Emory’s student government has declared “emergency” measures will be enacted to deal with the crisis.”
After experiencing a variety of unpleasant – and sometimes downright horrible – experiences of my own, including a hostile divorce and the death of both of my parents, along with low-grade discrimination and anti-semitism throughout my life, I absolutely wish that life was all about lovely, sensitive, culturally, racially and sexually aware people who were open and embraced differences. I wish dearly that bad things didn’t happen, that thugs didn’t beat up innocents, that children weren’t killed in collateral drive-bys, that cops didn’t shoot criminals and criminals didn’t shot cops, that we didn’t have wars and that no girl ever had to suffer through the ghastly experience of rape or physical abuse. But that’s not life. That’s not the world we live in, and because we’re all flawed human beings with base drives mixed in with our higher aspirations. We’ll have have utopia.
I recognize this as a parent, and so I choose to engage in these tough discussions with my children (in an age appropriate manner) rather than shy away from them. I try to expose them to both sides of the debate, explaining what motivated the Western Europeans to expand into America, not just talk about the oppression of the Natives. To talk about the injustice of slavery and why it helped create our remarkably free society. To explore the causes and consequences of a rape and how to avoid being a victim. To share that people are pulled into their worst behaviors when they’re afraid, and strive for their best behavior when they are free and safe.
If I’m doing it right, I expect to hear “oh, that’s awful” and “that’s really messed up” and “who could do that?” and “what’s wrong with that person?” All questions I have asked time and again myself. Who would own a slave? Who would beat a child? Who would assault a woman? Who would be so afraid that they saw everyone not like themselves as dangerous?
But trigger warnings? No thanks. I’ll embrace every facet of life, even the tough ones, and sincerely hope my children grow up with enough guts, backbone and courage to do the same. And maybe, just maybe, be an agent of change, trying to improve things. Not just avoid them.