College students from the University of California, Santa Barbara; Oberlin College; and Rutgers University, among others, have been calling for content warnings on novels read for class. Some consider these trigger warnings necessary and overdue, but others claim they are counterproductive to a learning experience.
These labels, commonly known as trigger warnings, would be used to inform students whether any content in the book could potentially be offensive or “trigger” past individual traumas, such as rape scenes, war scenes, etc. Bailey Loverin, co-author and sponsor of the University of California, Santa Barbara resolution on trigger warnings, believes that trigger warnings would be a very minor change and could save students from potentially traumatizing experiences.
“Without a trigger warning, a survivor might black out, become hysterical or feel forced to leave the room,” Loverin wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. “This effectively stops their learning process.”
Loverin also wrote in the Times that the idea of trigger warnings has led to helpful discussions and no official policy yet, implying that critics of the trigger warnings are getting carried away.
“Campus discussions about trigger warnings have led to widespread discussion and debate on PTSD, mental health and classroom content,” she wrote in the Times. “So far, there is no official policy, no punishment for teachers and no censorship. Don’t lose sleep over fear mongering and slippery slope arguments.”
It’s not only college students who feel cautiously optimistic about trigger warnings.
“Perhaps narrow policies to help sexual assault victims or combat veterans could be useful,” wrote Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic. “And there are, of course, rare instances when professors should tip students off to specific, unusually extreme content that no one would've expected given the context.”
The biggest problem with trigger warnings, according to Friedersdorf, is that if we begin labelling traumas, we will have to start labelling any and all potential sources of discomfort.
“Kids will feel trauma when their trauma isn't recognized as trauma,” Friedersdorf wrote. “ ‘Trigger warnings’ will be as common and useless as ‘adult content’ warnings on HBO.”
Others believe that there is nothing redeeming about trigger warnings for literature.
“(The point of) studying at the adult level is to make one feel challenged, excited by new ideas, elevated by fresh insights, broadened by others' perspectives,” wrote Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post. “Requiring labels on books is the busywork of smallish minds — yet another numbing example of political correctness run amok and the infantilizing of education in the service of overreaching sensitivity.”
Jenny Jarvie of The New Republic agrees, writing that trigger warnings will not only stifle education but fail at their primary task of protecting trauma victims.
“Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration,” she wrote. “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.”
Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2