Trigger Warnings and the Right to Be Offended

warningA number of years ago, I was living and teaching in a small city in south Georgia. I assigned a short story to my honors lit/comp students called “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers.” The story is by one of my favorites, Salman Rushdie. It is his typical mix of the magic and the real. The story is set in some sort of future where the lines between reality and fiction have blurred. All sorts of real-world people and characters from movies gather to bid on Dorothy’s magic slippers from The Wizard of Oz in hopes that they may use the magic found in the slippers. The story plays with concepts of “home” in really cool and interesting ways.

And then there is a moment when the narrator–a person at the auction of the ruby slippers–talks about an ex-lover and how, when they made love, she was quite loud. In fact, at the moment of penetration, she would welcome him “home.” They broke up because he caught her cheating on him with a “hairy escapee from a caveman movie.” Needless to say, he wanted to win the slippers and click the heels together so that he could go back “home” as well.

One of the girls in the class, unknowingly, had her much younger brother read the story to her while she was doing god-knows-what. This was a poor choice on her part, what with the loud love-making and talk of penetration and whatnot. People were offended and the conversation in class had to be a little different for a little while. Instead of discussing postmodernism and simulation and reality versus Reality, we had to discuss the sex scene and why it needed to be there. Certainly, this is an important conversation to have, but it should have been more organic than it was–and less defensive than it had to be.

About a week and a half ago, The New York Times ran an article called “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.” The article addresses a student-led movement that would require faculty at colleges and universities to include “trigger warnings” in their syllabi when it comes to material that could offend students–especially those students with PTSD from combat or physical and sexual abuse. The article cites students who think it’s a good idea and faculty who feel it is crippling their academic freedom.

Now, I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’ve representative articles and arguments from both sides of this debate. Here is what I think: there is absolutely nothing wrong with giving students a fair warning before something is going to be discussed that might serve as a trigger. I work in a military town now, and PTSD is a real thing. I feel like those guys have done a lot to preserve my “academic freedom,” so if I am about to discuss “The Things They Carried” and how Ted Lavender gets shot in the jungle of Vietnam by a hidden enemy, then I don’t see the harm in giving the class a brief disclaimer. If a trigger warning can give them a chance to prepare, then I don’t see the harm in it.

Certainly, some students may take this movement too far, but at this point it feels positive. Philip Wythe, a student columnist for The Daily Targum at Rutgers, writes:

Artistic censorship poses a serious threat to American civil liberties. The discomfort caused by these novels, while honored, should never act as a justification for universal censorship. By restricting educational access to controversial material, our educational system suffers as a whole — preventing students from reading works that truly question our society and culture.

Wythe is the first student cited in the Times article. So, at least for now, the movement is not to restrict what is being taught. The movement wants only for teachers to be more aware of the human beings that sit in front of us every day. I’ve never understood that portion of the Academy that insists on pretending that every student is the same empty receptacle ready to be filled with our knowledge. Every student arrives in our classrooms with years’ worth of experiences that will color the experience they have in the class. I don’t need to know who was abused or who saw their friend step on an IED in Iraq to understand that not respecting those potentialities could really hinder someone in my class.

But even after all of that, I find myself conflicted. In the Times article, Greg Lukianoff is quoted:

“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.”

And I agree with that statement so hard. It is important to be offended. In so many ways, offending people is the only way to make social progress. But isn’t there a difference between offending and challenging someone’s notions of the world and ignoring actual psychological issues? Isn’t this an issue of accommodation and access?

I am reminded of an ex-Marine I taught a while ago who said: “There are two things we shouldn’t write about–sex and war.” And I wonder now if that was a deeper psychological issue than he was willing to let on.

At the same time, I am also reminded of a fruitful conversation with that class a number of years ago after they read “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers”–a story that surprised and offended them.

Of course we should write about sex and war! And of course we should talk about those things! Maybe, though, we could just give a little advanced warning.

What do you think? Is the idea of the trigger warning taking another step toward watering things down? Or is the trigger warning a sign of respect and awareness?

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18 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings and the Right to Be Offended

  1. I’m assuming that it was a high school class you were teaching when you assigned “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” to be read? I have to marvel at how times have changed. That never would have been permitted reading material in my high school. Here in the Bible Belt, students and parents alike would have been howling in protest. I’ve often been told by readers of my short stories that my fiction makes them squirm. In some cases, I feel that if the reader isn’t uncomfortable, then I haven’t done my job. I certainly don’t want anyone trying to censor my work. That being said, I can see the validity in the argument for a trigger warning, especially when people are required to read certain works for an assignment. But I also wonder if this will lead to a slippery slope of just about everything requiring a trigger warning. Who determines what requires a warning? The writer, or readers? What if the writer doesn’t want this kind of label applied to his or her work? You’ve given me much to think about here, Shane.

    • Miranda,
      No…I was teaching at a community college. So that probably changes things a bit. As far as the other questions go, there is a lot to say. First, I think as supposed “experts” in our respective “disciplines,” the trigger warning falls to the teacher who decides to assign something. However, I think I’m with the syllabus statement that says “Hey…we’ll periodically be discussing things that may make you uncomfortable.” I definitely worry about the slippery slope, but I do think it’s important to distinguish between “if I read this, it will trigger flashbacks to when I was raped as a kid” and “I don’t want to read this because thinking about rape makes me uncomfortable.” Does that make sense?

      Of course, the issue of deciding on those differences is a tough one to tackle, too.

  2. Okay, gotcha regarding the class. I think it was the “honors lit” that made me think of high school, since we had advanced English classes there. And what you say does make sense. It’s like the ex-Marine you quoted in your post. It would have been entirely different if he’d said, “I don’t want to read about sex or war because it triggers memories of past trauma for me,” instead of claiming that no one should be writing about sex and war (hell, I have to wonder what a lot of authors would write about then!)

  3. I believe it is a sign of watering things down. Given that some elements of literature have been stretched into the grey zone, this is not one of those issues. This is about someone not liking what they read, or had read to them, and not knowing how to deal with what the author portried, or narrator depending on who you want to attribute it to. But the scene was there to convey thoughts and feeling of the narrator during a time in that characters life and that is pivotal to the story. But it is u

    • Up to you whether or not you want to apply a warning over nothing. This is something that requires a degree of maturity, and if the students cannot handle that then they shouldn’t be in a environment where maturity is expected.

      • Of course there are people who don’t want to read certain things just because they don’t want to read certain things. I’m not talking about those people. I’m talking about people who have legitimate and diagnosed PTSD who have serious and legitimate aversion to reading something without a warning. No one is saying not to teach it (yet) or to ban anything. The question is only should we warn students that what they are about to read might trouble them. And I say there is no harm in warning.

      • I realize your point after we spoke and after looking at my bookshelf I discovered a book that should come with the proposed ‘trigger warning’ – A Clockwork Orange

  4. I once taught Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” at a conservative Christian college, and decided it was appropriate to tell the class that the story might feel a bit racy (I know, I know) but that we were reading it because it’s important to consider different points of view and be able to address them intelligently. It worked wonders. The students were able to read past any surprise (or discomfort) and discuss the story thoughtfully. I’d say a similar approach for stories that could trigger those with PTSD, etc., is more than fair. In fact, it might just help students engage with that topic better than if they’re not given a brief warning or disclaimer.

    • First, I LOVE “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” What a great story! I think it’s important to remember that our students are not “readers” in the same way that we are, and I just can’t see anything wrong with a warning. And maybe the issue is a semantic one. Maybe people are reacting to the word “warning” and thinking of it like a movie or video game rating. Maybe something of a “preview” is a better way to refer to it. “Warning” implies danger. These stories aren’t dangerous, and the point of the trigger warning is to neutralize those feelings.

      Thanks for stopping by! And for subscribing 🙂

  5. I’ve recently been reading more about the debate over “trigger warnings” and agree with pretty much everything you said. There is value to warning suffers of PTSD that they may be about to be triggered – subjects like rape, abuse, combat. In fact, in a chapter of my novel, I have a girl get badly beaten by her boyfriend and I included a trigger warning for my beta readers.

    On the other hand, I had adamantly opposed to censorship and I do worry that trigger warnings for any little thing that might cause someone to be uncomfortable, to be offended… to have to THINK… are taking it a bit too far.

    • And I agree with you. I’m very sure that as soon as someone tries to change curriculum or ban certain things, we will have some serious problems. I’ll throw down hard to hold on to those rights. Simple disclaimers don’t seem to be interfering with those rights, though.

      Thanks for stopping by, Donna!

  6. Being a person who suffers from PTSD, brought on by childhood sexual abuse, I feel a warning is harmless and would be appreciated. For most in my position (and by that I mean those who are starting to become steady on their own two feet in tough conversations involving such topics), its not the reading or even the discussion that is difficult. Its the stigma and shame around it. That increases if a person with PTSD is caught off guard. So yeah, a trigger warning is wise for everyone. Those that tend to have something important on such a matter won’t say anything at all if the stage isn’t set right.

    And as far as the idea of a simple warning leading to people being cushioned too much… A simple, kind gesture for those that need it will never negate the uncomfortableness necessary for appropriate actions and over all change. That is quite an insensitive idea, feedimg a stigma we’re already trying to fight.

    • Thank you so much for stopping by and posting, Dawn. I completely agree with you. I can’t conceive of the trigger warning being negative. It’s considerate, it’s empathetic (on some level), and it at least attempts to frame the conversation in a less hostile way.

  7. Wow, at first my mind was made up: I’m against the warning, but now I don’t really know. Sounds like a great discussion to have with some of my literary friends..

    • Thanks for stopping by, Melanie. And yeah…at first I was against it, but like so many things, the more I read about it, the more I realized it’s a strong term (trigger warning) for a simple gesture (consideration). It is an excellent conversation that is very much worth having.

      • Yeah, I agree. I didn’t really think about things such as PTSD. My first thought was of people watering down literature, but yeah… it’s definitely a hot button issue.

  8. I remain completely torn on the issue and can se relative points on both sides. Maybe it depends on the trigger warning itself. I feel like they can be used so casually that eventually it will be censoring. But, I also feel like if used sparingly and appropriately, they could be wonderfully compassionate and beneficial. It’s a great topic and thought provoking as I come to expect from your place on the internet. 🙂

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