by Logan Miller
For years, trigger warnings have served as road signs in various blogs and forums marking content or discussions that could trigger an episode of post-traumatic stress disorder in a reader. These warnings were first used to warn people of depictions of graphic violence and sexual assault, and they quickly spread to cover other potentially offensive topics. Today, their use is widespread on the Internet; however, students at the University of Nevada, Reno may see their adoption in the classroom. Some universities have already started implementing trigger warnings.
Rutgers University and Oberlin College & University are two such institutions. Most recently, this debate was further fomented when the University of California, Santa Barbara Associated Student Senate wrote a resolution asking for their inclusion within the classroom and in college-related materials.
According to UCSB student newspaper The Daily Nexus, the senate requested “a resolution to mandate warnings for triggering content in academic settings,” and in doing so, joined the growing list of universities around the country that have already advised warning students of potentially harmful or offensive material.
Trigger warnings have traditionally been self-imposed as a courtesy to members of the community, but, compulsory or not, I want to make a case against their use in the venue of the classroom. This is not because their utility is lost on me, but because I think they provide emotional and intellectual insulation that only us students can determine the necessity of.
Beyond that, this insulation could be damaging to our college careers.
Before I state my case, I do want to offer a trigger warning of my own: The following paragraphs contain depictions of violence against women and animals.
In J.M. Coetzee’s novel “Disgrace,” a man is set ablaze by a neighboring farmer while his adult daughter is raped. During this confrontation, the daughter’s kennel of dogs is slaughtered.
In the autobiographical novel “Pimp: The Story of my Life,” Robert Beck’s (aka Iceberg Slim) eponymous protagonist beats a young woman turning tricks for him.
Beyond depicting sexual violence, racial tensions and maiming, these books and countless others are currently taught at UNR. Indeed, UNR students are often asked to read materials that depict violence and death, physical and mental torture, eating disorders and depression. Core Humanities classes, in particular, regularly require students to read about the end of the world. The litany of potentially harmful material being read in classrooms around campus borders on the mind boggling. In such a landscape, what material wouldn’t need a trigger warning attached?
On either side of the debate, online media sources such as The New Republic, The Daily Caller and Salon have pointed out that emotional triggers are deeply personal and not often recognizable beforehand. It is impossible to gauge what content does or does not necessitate a trigger warning. Certainly, the graphic content I’ve included here could apply, but where we delineate harmful content from the rest is a question with no simple answer.
Never mind the potential for harm, what about offensive material? However, if the content that may trigger a panic attack is expansive, this second category may very well include all of creation. But in discussing potential harm and offense, commentators have skirted an important question: Should we students expect or want such insulation?
These books do more than depict horrible acts. They also recount important stories from America and abroad. They tell histories of social strife and activism. These are tales of suffering, redemption and triumph. Whether they recount deep romance or dark tragedy, the materials we’re assigned tell us something about the people who first wrote them. They tell us something about ourselves.
Some of us might relish the ability to avoid such material, the good and the bad, whether we suffer from PTSD or not, and I want to give all due sympathy for anyone that might suffer by reading “The Bluest Eye” or “The Great Gatsby,” but universities have never been areas of either emotional or intellectual safety. In fact, our college experiences are often defined by challenges to the ways in which we think and react to things.
Additionally, our adult lives are not going to offer such safety. And why should we expect coddling anyway? We’re adults and independent people, fully capable of responding to what we see in the world, even when what we see hurts us or causes us to remember past traumas we have experienced.
I can’t say whether UNR will join with the host of universities that have already started to implement trigger warnings into their academic content, but for the above reasons, I would urge any student confronting a syllabus full of trigger warnings to not shy away from the material. Yes, the class may offend you. It may even harm you, but in removing yourself from the situation entirely, you have potentially done yourself a greater harm.
Logan Miller studies English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.