A recent New York Times article describes a new trend in academic life:
Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.Among these schools: the University of California, Santa Barbara, where student government has called for trigger warnings. The dateline for the Times article — Santa Barbara itself — now serves as a cruel reminder that reality itself most often comes without warnings.
For several semesters I’ve put this statement on my syllabi when appropriate: “The works we’re reading contain material that some readers may find offensive or disturbing (language, sex, violence). In such cases, please consider taking another course.” No one has ever asked what was coming. I think a general warning like this one is appropriate, with further conversation as needed. But I’m against labeling individual works of the imagination in a way that reduces their content to a set of potentially dangerous elements. Imagine Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man accompanied by a “Contains racism” warning. Or “Contains racism, a corrupt college administrator, rural and urban poverty, a tall tale of incest, uninvited touching, an uninvited sexual proposition, a rape fantasy, an eviction, a police shooting, rioting, looting, and arson.” There is no end to what might upset a reader.
I wonder: what do students who favor trigger warnings expect to find in literature? As Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, “Art hurts.” Pity and terror are sometimes what we’re meant to feel. And we can feel these things not only because of what has happened to us: we can feel them because of our shared humanity.