Thursday, May 29, 2014

On “trigger warnings”

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.

comments: 9

The Crow said...

As someone who endures PTSD, I see your point about a disclaimer/caution statement. I also agree that labeling an individual piece of art with a "trigger warning" is demeaning to the artist and his/her work, tantamount to censorship.

The problem with PTSD, in my experience, is that I rarely recognize a trigger until well past the episode has begun or is over, when my brain calms down enough for me to analyze what the hell just happened. Even then, I sometimes don't find a connection to anything that may have happened in the moments before the attack.

My PTSD is directly related to my time in service, but didn't rear its nasty little head until 45 years later. Go figure.

Michael Leddy said...

I’ve taught the Iliad a number of times in classes with veterans. I always invoke the advice Jonathan Shay gives at the start of his book Achilles in Vietnam: go slow. I know from the film about that book how many things can serve as a trigger for someone living with PTSD: one veteran mentioned the smell of wet grass.

Elaine said...

Isn't it interesting how olfactory memories can be so powerful? Years after our daughter was born, I somewhere caught the odor of Hibiclens, the surgical scrub soap that we were required to use before entering the NICU. The smell put me right back in that time and place, with the terror and dread (and empty arms), the endless waiting for a diagnosis and treatment plan, for the surgeons to do their work. Awful ambush!

Michael Leddy said...

Yes. I’ve had smells take me back in all kinds of ways, happy and not happy.

I should have made it clearer in the comment above: the veteran who mentioned wet grass appeared in Charles Berkowitz’s film. I would never reveal something like that from a student.

Elaine said...

A happy smell would be the wonderful scent of a bee swarm (the pheromones emitted by the workers who need to attract others to the new site.) Unforgettable!

Michael Leddy said...

Since we’re talking about smells: it’s behind the paywall but well worth seeking out: David Owen’s piece on the smells of his childhood, “The Dime Store Floor.”

Fresca said...

Just saw the "Trigger warning" cartoon in the June 2 New Yorker:
and remembered this post.

Ha! yeah, maybe literature in general should just come with TRIGGER WARNING labels across the front, like warning labels on cigarettes.

I don't have PTSD, but in my experience, going slow can make litearture even more intense:
when I translated the Iliad in a Latin class, paying such close attention to the words gave them time to sink it, and I dreamed about being trapped in a burning city.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the link, Fresca. I am several issues behind, so this cartoon is new to me.

Latin . . . you must mean the Aeneid? When I taught the Iliad in its entirety (in translation), I had dreams of being trapped in a burning house. I was dreaming ahead to the fall of Troy.

Anonymous said...

FRESCA: Ha, right---I meant the Aeneid, of course.

I did a little Greek too, and the phrase in that language that stunned me when I translated it--painstakingly, word by word, not knowing what was coming--was "the unexamined life is not worth living..."
So weird to read it as if new!