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Trigger warnings: Should they appear on books?

Are 'trigger warnings' on readings assigned to students a courtesy or a form of censorship?

One Rutgers student asked that readers be warned of violence in 'The Great Gatsby.'

They've been likened to censorship, called “inimical to academic freedom,” and said to encourage “solipsism.”

The latest literary debate sweeping the nation – or at least US universities – is over trigger warnings, preemptive warnings on books about themes readers may find disturbing, including sexual assault, rape, violence, suicide, and other graphic material. Students at some universities have begun requesting such warnings on assigned literature and on class syllabi as a means to prepare or protect sensitive students from traumatizing material.

A well-circulated May 17 New York Times article on the topic let loose a firestorm of debate over the proposed practice in the weeks since it was published.

Is it akin to censorship and another example of “political correctness” taken to the extreme, as some have argued? Or is it a benign courtesy offered to students who have suffered from trauma in order to prepare them for challenging themes?

Bloggers, students, and academics have weighed in – loudly.

Literature – and by extension, art and education – are not meant to always be pleasant, positive experiences, critics of trigger warnings contend.

“Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives,” Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told The New York Times. “It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended.”

In circles of higher learning, many professors have balked at the idea of warning labels that they say smack of censorship. 

“Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom,” Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor at the university at UCLA Santa Barbara, told the Times. “The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.”

“…[L]ife is triggering,” writes Al-Jazeera’s Ruth Fowler.

She writes of her experience spending time in Afghanistan for research on a movie script. Afghans, for whom bomb blasts, drone strikes, and casual violence are an almost daily part of life, possessed “an elegiac understanding that we could only protect our lives so much,” she writes.

“It’s hard to feel any sympathy for a student discreetly taking a professor aside to discuss the content of the assigned reading and its impact on the psyche after you’ve watched a bunch of Afghans twitch slightly at yet another bomb and keep going because they have very little else available to them: no therapy, no shrink, no Xanax, no vociferous student union caring about their feelings, no professor who might carefully comb a reading list for potential triggers,” Fowler writes. “It’s hard not to think that the desire for trigger warnings isn’t simply evidence of a younger generation’s need to 'toughen up,' but yet another manifestation of the very American desire to limit one’s experience to 'pleasant' things rather than fully understanding the world around us.”

“I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up,’” Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin’s associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Times. “That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with. We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously.”

Advocates of trigger warnings say the debate has been blown out of proportion.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the apocalypse is upon us, and it has arrived in the form of the humble trigger warning. Or at least you’d think so, to go by the gallons of ink that have been spilled on the subject in the past week or so,” writes Claire Fallon in a Huffington Post piece titled “Let’s all calm down: Trigger warnings for books are not like censorship.” 

The warnings aren’t akin to censorship, extreme example of political correctness, or antithetical to academic freedom, trigger warning proponents like Raimondo and Fallon say. They are simply statements that would better prepare some readers, especially those who have experienced trauma, to approach texts or decide not to read them altogether.

“Many have easily equated trigger warnings with slapping a scarlet letter on classic literature warning students to avoid possible discomfort, when the reality is far less frightening: a few words, probably in a class syllabus, noting that a graphic and potentially triggering scene will appear in the book, as a courtesy to students with past trauma who will be reading the class material,” Fallon writes. 

Adds Bailey Loverin, a literature major at UCLA Santa Barbara and co-author of the U.C. Student Board resolution on trigger warnings, in a NYT Opinion piece “…with the trigger warning [students] would be prepared to face uncomfortable material and could better contribute to the discussions or opt to avoid them. These warnings are less about protection and more about preparation, but the recent spread of university and college students requesting trigger warnings has caused an unnecessary panic over free speech."

The way we see it, students can have their books and read them, too. That's because literature, by its very nature, is designed to challenge, expose, provoke, offend – and, in fact, heal. 

In the same way that those suffering phobias conquer their fears only through confronting them, those suffering trauma may find healing through the very literature they find disturbing. 

As the Guardian’s Jen Doll put it, “That … is the intention of art itself: it's not meant to shield us from pain so much as offer a vessel through which we can cope, grow and even move past tragedy. If we warn people with a flashing red light that inside great works of literature they are likely to find pain, we do a disservice to the conversations, and the healing, meant to come through the act of reading itself.”

What do you think? Are trigger warnings merely a helpful “heads-up” to students who have experienced trauma, or do they set a dangerous precedent of protectionism, political correctness, and even censorship?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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