By: Shannon Strack
The written word isn’t always pleasant. One can’t simply open a book and expect kisses and dandelions to float off the page. Now, I want to make it clear that I’m in no way implying that is what many University students across America are expecting as they toil through their required reading lists; however, the idea of blanket trigger warnings on English syllabi doesn’t sit well with me.
Jenny Jarvie, author of the article, “Trigger Happy: The ‘Trigger Warning’ Has Spread from Blogs to College Campuses. Can It Be Stopped?” suggests that not everyone agrees on what a trigger warning is. She states that, initially, trigger warnings were used for potentially graphic material on self-help and feminist forums to warn readers that may suffer from PTSD. By 2013, the trigger warning was popping up all over the internet for a diverse array of topics, from sex to animals in wigs (yes, you read that correctly).
“What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off. The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.”
The question on my mind, as the notion of trigger warnings begins to encompass the widely accepted literary canon, is where does it stop? College is supposed to broaden one’s horizons, not limit them; it is supposed to challenge people. College is supposed to broaden one’s horizons, not limit them; it is supposed to challenge people. It may be prudent for professors to send an email or distribute a handout to students detailing a particularly explicit or violent upcoming lecture or in-class film in case there are students that may be personally affected. However, slapping a trigger warning on works such as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (anti-Semitism) or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogyny) doesn’t do anyone any good.
As the world can be cruel, so can its literature. If colleges adhere to individual sensitivities, we limit academic freedom. Jarvie stated it wonderfully when she said, “Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.” While some literature may be unsettling, the discipline as a whole exposes people to ideas and realities they wouldn’t normally consider. And it does this all from the safety of the written page.
This commentary is a response to Jenny Jarvie’s article, “Trigger Happy: The ‘Trigger Warning’ Has Spread from Blogs to College Campuses. Can It Be Stopped?” from The New Republic.