The Trigger-Happy University

Kathleen Geier   May 23, 2014

The “trigger warning” is an innovation that seems innocuous enough, in theory. But in practice, trigger warnings have a subtle but corrosive effect on the values of intellectual inquiry and gender equality. As such, they should be firmly resisted.

Trigger warnings are disclaimers alerting the reader that the content they are about to encounter may be disturbing—or even, in the language of those who advocate the use of these labels, “traumatizing.” The New York Times devoted a piece to this trend this week, but I first began noticing these irritating little buggers a number of years ago, when they started cropping up on feminist blogs. But now they’ve spread to other places, and they’re popping up on academic syllabi on college campuses across the country.

Not only have trigger warnings spread to other contexts, they’ve also become broader in scope. While they were originally applied almost exclusively to content about sexual assault and other forms of violence, they’re now being slapped on an ever-broadening array of topics. As The New Republic’s Jenny Jarvie recently wrote:

alerts have been applied to topics as diverse as sex, pregnancy, addiction, bullying,suicide, sizeism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, slut shaming, victim-blaming, alcohol, blood, insects, small holes, and animals in wigs.

Classic literature is the latest target. The Times reported that a draft guide on trigger warnings from Oberlin College cited Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart as an example of a work that “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.” And a Rutgers student argued that The Great Gatsby should be trigger-warned because of “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”

As the advocates of trigger warnings point out, these alerts aren’t meant to censor content; they merely warn the reader about what’s coming up ahead and give her the choice as to whether or not to engage in it. But, particularly in an academic context, there’s something infantilizing and inherently anti-intellectual about flagging every potentially disturbing work with a trigger warning. The trigger warning is an engraved invitation to opt out of a challenging intellectual experience. To the extent trigger warnings proliferate, they encourage habits of mind that are not conducive to intellectual inquiry.

One problem with trigger warnings is the shifting rationales supporters give for using them. Is the purpose of trigger warnings to enable readers to avoid unpleasantness, or to help them recover from trauma? If the argument is the latter, it doesn’t hold, because research indicates that “confronting triggers, not avoiding them, is the best way to overcome PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]” and that “making trauma central to one’s identity bodes poorly for survivors.” For trauma survivors, trigger warnings are not therapeutically indicated and may even be counterproductive. A number of trauma survivors have written about why that they don’t use trigger warnings and don’t find them helpful.

It’s revealing that two sharpest critiques of trigger warnings I’ve read were written by female African-American intellectuals: Brittney Cooper and Tressie McMillan Cottom. Both women are academics, and both are sensitive to the ways that trigger warnings can be deployed to marginalize classroom discussions of politically controversial topics like sex, race, and class. Cooper says she doesn’t put trigger warnings on her syllabi, because such alerts might discourage students “from participating in discussions that they were absolutely capable of having.”

Both Cooper and Cottom situate trigger warnings in the context of neoliberal education “reform” and the corporate university. Cooper believes that the clamor for trigger warnings is a result of students’ being miseducated due to school reform efforts. She writes:

Yet, those of us in the academy are now encountering the generation of students educated under the high-stakes testing model of both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. They are a generation of students who are uncomfortable with being made uncomfortable.

Cottom ties trigger-happiness to the corporatized university and the student-as-customer model:

Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

I’ve talked before about how the student-customer model becomes a tool to rationalize away the critical canon of race, sex, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and capitalism.

When you’re tweeting or writing on the Internet, an alert of the “NSFW” variety to flag explicit sexual content, or a warning about a link that displays graphic violence or is otherwise exceptionally alarming is one thing. It’s all too easy for online readers to inadvertently stumble on something hair-raisingly disturbing. But the expansion of trigger warnings to an academic context and to an ever-proliferating array of subjects is unnerving.

As Cooper argues our test-obsessed schools, which have created a generation of students that is ill-equipped to handle complex and challenging material, deserve a healthy share of the responsibility for this phenomenon. But I also blame the rise of overprotective parenting. Middle-class parents who hover around anxiously to prevent their little darlings from ever experiencing a moment of discomfort, frustration, or failure do them no favors.

In the end, besides the anti-intellectualism, what troubles me most about trigger warnings is what they say about gender. The trigger warning was popularized in feminist spaces and the demands for trigger warnings are coming overwhelmingly from women. Yet the trigger warnings reinforce the worst Victorian-era stereotypes of women—that we’re fragile flowers who can’t deal with the world’s harsh truths and need to be protected from them. The highly gendered subtext behind the trigger warning campaigns is a message that says: leave tragic literature, accounts of historical atrocities, and other intellectual rough stuff to the big boys. We girls will sit here with our knitting, our minds unclouded by thought.

In the 19th century, medical experts warned young women away from college [PDF]. Women’s delicate lady-brains couldn’t handle it the rigors of academic life, they claimed; too much study would draw blood from the ovaries to the brain, leading to infertility and nervous breakdowns.

Trigger warnings are the 21st century equivalent of such quackery. To the extent that they continue to proliferate, what that says about the state of education and gender equality in America today is cause for alarm.

Kathleen Geier is a Chicago-based writer and researcher. She blogs at Inequality Matters and has written for The Washington Monthly, The Nation, Salon, and other publications. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee.

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