This past spring “trigger warnings” triggered a debate in American and Canadian media. A trigger warning is an alert about content that might cause serious discomfort or even psychological pain.
As reported inThe New Republic (March 3, 2014) by Jenny Jarvie, trigger warnings were initially used in feminist online discussion forums to warn readers about discussions of sexual violence. The use of trigger warnings has spread to social media and now to the university classroom, alerting students to potentially distressing books and films.
Oberlin College published a document recommending that professors make “triggering material” optional. The document gives as an example Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart, which may “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”
In major publications including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Globe and Mail, The New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal, writers gave their two cents on the issue. Many criticized trigger warnings as a form of political correctness undermining a university education. Like Jarvie, they also saw a form of kind-hearted but misdirected censorship. But some spoke in favor of trigger warnings, in recognition of how powerful words and images can be, in both a positive and a negative way.
At first, I scoffed at the jargon-like sound of “trigger warning.” And don’t you go to college to get more knowledge, not to be coddled by avoiding hard truths? But then I realized I have been issuing my own warnings for many years as a professor at a Christian college.
For example, in my introductory French cinema class, I put a notice in my syllabus saying that many of the films deal with serious moral issues and present potentially disturbing images. Also, in writing for The Banner, I regularly discuss with the Tuned In editor whether a book or film review needs a line about mature content.
Such content warnings (to avoid offending someone’s religious or moral sensibility) are not the same thing as a true “trigger warning” (to avoid causing unnecessary psychological distress). I understand my responsibility to be sensitive to material that may be shocking or trigger distress.
But it would be sad if “trigger warnings” caused teachers and writers, along with students and readers, to avoid classic and contemporary works that address serious issues with emotional depth and artistic skill.