Why Can’t We Have a Rational and Compassionate Conversation About Trigger Warnings?

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There are times when people on the Internet can be cruel, times when they can be funny — and times when they think they’re being funny, but they’re actually being cruel. Yesterday, when the New York Times piece “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm” started making the rounds, the predominant response was the latter scenario. There were a lot of jokes made in the vein of, “Poor babies, can’t take a little violence in their books,” along with somewhat more thoughtful suggestions that books and art, no matter how scary or real they might be to some people, should be used to heal, that people have to face reality and that books help to do that.

That isn’t the way this conversation should be approached because, no matter how silly you might judge a trigger warning on a copy of The Great Gatsby to be, the mocking tone comes off as victim-shaming, whether it’s intentional or not. Of course, it takes two to tango, and the pro-trigger warning side, in some cases, could do a better job presenting its arguments. The Oberlin College draft guide mentioned in the Times piece, which asked professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabi, doesn’t make it clear how trigger warnings from the left are different from the right’s book-banning. When somebody files a complaint against a school board for teaching a book because its subject matter might be too risqué or anti-American, or the language might be too colorful, those people are trying to hide the literature from what they consider sensitive eyes. Yet as the Times piece points out, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, one of the truly great novels of the 20th century, set in colonial-era Nigeria, could supposedly “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.” Reading that makes me pause for a moment and wonder where the line should be drawn between suppression and censorship by people who want to ban books and the sensitivity of those who want to shield PTSD victims from material that could re-traumatize them.

I can’t speak for victims of abuse. We all deal with things differently, and what can set a person off can be specific to them. I worked with Holocaust survivors for a few years, and one of the first pages of my immense book of instructions laid out things that could “trigger” memories, from certain smells to the sound of dogs barking. With such common daily things on the list, I wondered how these people could go on living in the world at all. But they did, and it made me understand better that to be a survivor is a massive task. To figure out a way to live at all comfortably is even harder.

At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to figure out what’s best for them, and we are better if we support them when they need it — but, perhaps, attend to individual readers’ needs rather than make assumptions about what will upset certain groups. At the very least, we need to have more serious conversations about not just trigger warnings, but the causes behind them. And we should strive to make those conversations as compassionate as possible.