Opinion
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The trouble with trigger warnings

Why adding disclaimers to books with disturbing content is an indulgent American impulse

June 1, 2014 12:45AM ET

Students across the U.S. — most notably in California — have begun requesting “trigger warnings” for potentially upsetting or disturbing material used in assigned canonical literature such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's “The Great Gatsby” (which apparently references “gory, abusive and misogynistic violence”) and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (with its references to a suicide). The insistence that everyone may potentially be traumatized by literature seems to undermine and devalue the very real and disabling condition of post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition that can be triggered by anything, not merely a reference to the original traumatic event. The American tendency to pathologize negative experiences and label everything a “trauma” is well chronicled in a long, celebrated history of torts and ambulance-chasing lawyers.

I learned something about traumatic experience last year in Afghanistan. I was in Jalalabad while conducting research for a movie script on drones. As the car I was in drove toward a soccer stadium, we heard a loud bang about 50 meters ahead of us, followed by a puff of smoke. Everyone jumped slightly, and, without a word, traffic swiftly rerouted. A few moments later a truck sped past urgently with a few bloody, crumpled torsos in the back. “Was that a bomb?” I asked my friend Habib in the front seat. “Yes. That was a bomb,” he said. Then, by way of explanation, without a trace of self-pity, he said: “We are used to it.”

There was a sense of fatality in Afghanistan, an elegiac understanding that we could only protect our lives so much. I found Afghans fostered an almost disturbing sense of calm in dealing with both the tragic and the absurd.

The American way of thinking might assume that Afghans, trapped in a country riven by war, were all deeply traumatized and suffering from PTSD, which could then be triggered years later by something utterly innocuous. But after a month in Kabul, I don’t think that most Afghans — subjected to the daily threat of bombings, suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices, airstrikes and more — were actually suffering from this affliction. Some were, certainly. But I think many residents had learned that in order to live, not just to survive, they simply had to get on with things, even when their senses were sharpened by an acute and urgent sense of mortality.

It’s hard to feel any sympathy for a student discreetly taking a professor aside to discuss the content of the assigned reading and its impact on the psyche after you’ve watched a bunch of Afghans twitch slightly at yet another bomb and keep going because they have very little else available to them: no therapy, no shrink, no Xanax, no vociferous student union caring about their feelings, no professor who might carefully comb a reading list for potential triggers. It’s hard not to think that the desire for trigger warnings isn’t simply evidence of a younger generation’s need to “toughen up,” but yet another manifestation of the very American desire to limit one’s experience to “pleasant” things rather than fully understanding the world around us. God forbid that any American student be traumatized by reading about the killing of Afghan children by U.S. drones.

Was trauma just shorthand for 'not getting what you want'? Feeling inconvenience in an affluent, convenient society?

When I gave birth to my son, my hoped-for natural home birth ended up being more complicated than anticipated. However, what surprised me the most about the birth was how people reacted afterward. There was a sense that I must have suffered trauma because my birth wasn’t “perfect.” On the contrary, I found a trip to the hospital more than a little exciting, with the added benefit that it probably saved my life or at the very least prevented me from being extremely sick and weak for a number of weeks. But it was almost as though I was expected to be traumatized.

It got me thinking: Was trauma just shorthand for “not getting what you want”? Feeling inconvenience in an affluent, convenient society? Or is it really possible that the entire nation is on the verge of a breakdown because of something so dark and sordid and painful in its past, that even the relatively innocuous Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” has the ability to trigger it? 

If there’s one book that privileged white middle-class college students could probably benefit from reading, it is Achebe’s superb novel — labeled “triggering” because of its references to colonial violence and suicide. While obviously there are a number of people in the University of California system who might find this book troubling because of their own experiences, a glance at the admissions by race might seem to suggest that the overwhelmingly white and Asian-American students could have a hard job relating to the perspective of the colonized in Achebe’s book. Or perhaps it is the role of colonizer that is triggering for these students?

“Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in The New York Times. “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 value is talking about serious, uncomfortable subjects, the kinds of subjects that literature has traditionally tackled in a nondidactic manner. Perhaps the focus should be on forcing those lucky enough to get a college education to read literature that might impress upon them the privileges they enjoy that so many of their fellow Americans do not.

A huge number of people in the U.S. live through things that could well provoke a great deal of trauma. For example, racism toward black men and women results in their disproportionately high incarceration, neonatal and maternal mortality and unemployment rates. Every 72 hours, a black man is killed by the police or by vigilantes. It’s safe to say that African-Americans deal with an incredible amount of trauma. For any member of an oppressed minority struggling, as black Americans do, with the daily challenges of systemic oppression, the concept of “flagging” potentially disturbing content must seem like a waste of time. Certainly, triggers are real, but they are also highly subjective and personal. My point is that life is triggering. For a veteran, it might be the continual beep of a grocery scanner. For a sexual abuse victim, it could be the direct eye contact of an adult male. For someone who has spent a lot of time in hospitals, it might be needles, or having blood pressure taken. Anyone who has truly suffered from trauma or PTSD is taught that triggers cannot be avoided — an impossibility in a country that is saturated with graphic news images and violent video games and crazy white males shooting up children’s schools. Instead they are taught how to deal with them, and that includes approaching a teacher in a classroom before a course commences to say, “Please let me know if X is in a novel, because I might not be able to read that.”

Americans, of course, take great exception to the idea that the onus of responsibility for dealing with their “trauma” might be on themselves. “There is no safer environment in which to learn [the skill of coping with trauma] than from sitting on the sofa, in a democracy, with a full belly and the choice to make the ‘horror’ stop at any moment by the simple act of closing the book,” says my friend Simon, another Brit perplexed, like myself, by the perversion of American exceptionalism — the belief that we, as Americans, are all precious creatures who should be free from all anxieties and secure from anyone who might disturb our feelings. If only the same students lobbying for trigger warnings cared as much about systemic oppression, we might be making progress in this country. Instead, we’ll filibuster our lives away by making our college courses politically correct, ensuring those who are lucky enough to have an education aren’t burdened by anyone else’s trauma but their own.

Ruth Fowler is a British journalist and screenwriter living in the U.S.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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