Trigger Warnings Will Not Destroy Literature

You might have seen the recent New York Times story about proposals that “trigger warnings,” a popular term for descriptions of potentially disturbing subject matter, be added to college syllabi to alert students before exposing them to such material, often in order to prevent post-traumatic responses. Examples cited in the Times of the sort of subjects that might merit a trigger warning include the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice and the suicide in Mrs. Dalloway; one might also mention, as Jay Caspian Kang did in a later essay arguing against such warnings, Lolita as, in one interpretation, “the systematic rape of a young girl” by a much older man. You can likely come up with some examples from your own reading.

Well, as that article details, there are objections galore to this; some critics have declared trigger warnings an imminent threat to academic discourse, forcing professors to retreat to “safe,” harmless texts (whatever those are supposed to be). One free speech advocate quoted by the Times argues, “It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.”

The underlying logic in that statement, however, is that the professors are the ones who know best when it’s time to talk about those subjects, and that students should have no other option but to have those conversations on the professors’ terms. If a student doesn’t feel emotionally ready to confront the subject matter, too bad; the experience, this argument proposes, will ultimately be to his or her benefit, no matter how traumatic it feels in the moment.

As a rhetorical position, that’s not entirely unsympathetic. Stepping outside the classroom for a moment, I’m reminded of Sam Fuller’s film Verboten! (1959), set in post-WWII Germany. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, a German woman takes her teenage brother, who is falling under the sway of neo-Nazis, to the Nuremberg trials, where documentary footage from liberated concentration camps is shown as evidence against the leaders of the Third Reich.

Fuller, who saw firsthand the atrocities at Falkenau, was deliberately confronting American audiences with raw images of the Holocaust, refusing to let them minimize the extent of what happened. “It’s something we should see,” the woman declares when her brother tries to look away. “The whole world should see.”

But who decides what the whole world should see? And by what criteria?

My friend Rebecca Schinsky makes a significant counterargument to the forced confrontation school of thought in an essay at Book Riot. “There is no scene in literature that is so important that reading it should supersede a reader’s psychological health,” she writes. “Books matter… [but] people matter more.” Furthermore, she points out, readers already make decisions about what they will or won’t read based on what they can learn about a book beforehand all the time—and the literary canon has not collapsed as a result.

I’ll extend that even further: As a culture, we already make decisions about what literary texts we value based on a generally agreed upon standard of tolerable expression, a standard that can and does change over time. There’s a reason we talk a lot less about Ezra Pound these days, to the extent we’ve come to believe his artistic strengths fail to make up the virulent anti-Semitic content in his work. Maybe the concerns raised by trigger warnings will eventually lead to the reevaluation of other authors and other texts. Then again, maybe it won’t. Either way, we will continue to have a literary culture… specifically, we will continue to have a literary culture in which authors are free to take on difficult, challenging subject matter, which readers can tackle as they see fit.

Frankly, I’m beginning to think you could make a good case for trigger warnings as a useful tool for academics in framing the discussion of a literary text before students directly experience it. If you aren’t prepared to discuss the realities of combat stress reaction, for example, I’m not sure you’re prepared to teach Slaughterhouse-Five. An open appraisal of a book’s potentially disturbing contents might well lead to a better understanding of why the subjects that book addresses are worth talking about, why, in Sam Fuller’s words, “the whole world should see.” Because while some readers do use trigger warnings to actively avoid upsetting or traumatizing material, others simply appreciate the heads-up—and, with sufficient preparation, will do the reading. All they’re asking for is the ability to make an informed decision about it.

(NOTE: This post originally appeared on Beacon.)

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23 May 2014 | theory |