What’s the End Game for the Trigger Warning Movement?


“Trigger warnings” are having their 15 minutes of fame this year, and a New York Times piece about them this weekend made the rounds of the blogosphere. Apparently some activists want trigger warnings for books like The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn:

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them….Bailey Loverin, a sophomore at Santa Barbara, said the idea for campuswide trigger warnings came to her in February after a professor showed a graphic film depicting rape. She said that she herself had been a victim of sexual abuse, and that although she had not felt threatened by the film, she had approached the professor to suggest that students should have been warned.

Ms. Loverin draws a distinction between alerting students to material that might truly tap into memories of trauma — such as war and torture, since many students at Santa Barbara are veterans — and slapping warning labels on famous literary works, as other advocates of trigger warnings have proposed.

Maybe somebody can help me out here. Not snarky “help,” mind you, but real help. As you might expect, I’m not especially sympathetic to the trigger warning movement, which seems more appropriate for explicitly safe spaces (counseling groups, internet forums, etc.) than for public venues like university campuses. But put that aside. What I don’t get is what anyone thinks the point of this is. You’re never going to have trigger warnings in ordinary life, right? So even if universities started adopting broad trigger policies, it would accomplish nothing except to semi-protect sensitive students for a few more years of their lives, instead of teaching them how to deal with upsetting material.

Now, you could make this same argument about a lot of things. But in other cases—for example, a university policy aimed at racism or disabilities or whatnot—it would presumably be done in the hope that it might influence public policy and eventually lead to changes in the wider world. But does anyone have this hope for trigger warnings? It doesn’t even seem feasible to me.

But maybe I’m just demonstrating a lack of imagination here. In any case, I’m curious about what the ultimate point is. Are supporters of trigger warnings just hoping to give kids a few more years of refuge from the outside world? Or do they somehow think that these policies might spark the outside world to change? I’ve never really heard anyone explain what the end game is here, and I’d like to hear it.

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