Trigger Warnings: That’s When I Reach For My Revolver

“The bold adventurer succeeds the best.” —Ovid

“What fresh hell can this be?” —Dorothy Parker

Well, Dorothy, you’d probably be sorry you asked, if you were still around to read the latest from Columbia University, as reported in The Washington Post:

In an op-ed in the student newspaper, four Columbia University undergrads have called on the school to implement trigger warnings — alerts about potentially distressing material — even for classics like Greek mythology or Roman poetry.

“Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom,” wrote the four students, who are members of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board. “These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.”

Where to begin? Elizabeth Scalia provides an excellent overview, including this quote from Tom McDonald:

They are saying that race and class are themselves implicitly traumatic and need to be approached as one would a true mental illness. They’re saying that being non-white or poor is a kind of disability that requires special accommodations. Am I the only person who sees that as grossly offensive?

Here’s the deeper problem: triggering is a real thing in mental illness and trauma. A trigger can lead to serious psychological and physiological effects, trawling up memories that haven’t been properly dealt with and leading to anxiety attacks. Anyway who understands anxiety knows this to be true.

However, a victim of violence who is triggered so easily and frequently is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and needs serious counseling and medication. If they try to assiduously avoid any and all potential triggers, then they are not engaged in healing. They are engaged in avoidance. Indeed, avoiding “triggers” is a way of avoiding coming to grips with the problem, which has the effect of worsening the PTSD.

The answer is not to reshape the public square to accommodate them, because literally anything (a color, a smell) can be a trigger. Trigger warnings exist only to claim public victim status and reshape the debate.

And then it’s a short walk to demanding that trigger warnings be slapped onto ideas with which one merely disagrees, such as the sort of icky thoughts espoused by the estimable Christina Hoff Sommers:

“Tonight, Republicans are hosting an extremist anti-feminist speaker that dismisses and denies survivors of sexual assault and the real harm of rape culture. Current College Republicans leadership has not been willing to do simple things like add a trigger/ content warning, or clarify why they felt it was appropriate to bring this speaker into our community.”

Old-line Leftists must be wondering what has become of their glorious revolution–at least that’s one upside to all this, aside from the entertainment value. The new-breed vanguard of the proletariat seem to have gone all wobbly (pun intended).


See also: “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm” (The New York Times, 5/17/14)

(And yes, I know–the referenced quote in the title of this blog post is not precisely correct.)

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