Trigger Warnings

Anxiety in Academe

Unless you spend much time sitting in a college classroom or browsing through certain precincts of the Internet, it’s possible you had not heard of trigger warnings until a few weeks ago, when they made an appearance in the Times. The newspaper explained that the term refers to preemptive alerts, issued by a professor or an institution at the request of students, indicating that material presented in class might be sufficiently graphic to spark symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder ….

…It is hard to read through a fraction of the #YesAllWomen posts [the hashtag embraced as a vehicle for drawing attention to the pervasiveness of sexualized violence against women] without feeling shaken, whether by the relief of recognition or by the shock of ignorance dispelled. (If one is old enough to have participated in student-led Take Back the Night marches three decades ago, it is also impossible to read the posts without drawing the demoralizing conclusion that the night remains in hostile possession.

The trigger-warning debate may, by comparison, seem esoteric; but both it and #YesAllWomen express a larger cultural preoccupation with achieving safety, and a fear of living in its absence. The hope that safety might be found as in a therapist’s office, in a classroom where literature is being taught is in direct contradiction to one purpose of literature, which is to give expression through art to difficult and discomfiting ideas, and thereby to enlarge the reader’s experience and comprehension. The classroom can never be an entirely safe space, nor, probably, should it be. But it’s difficult to fault those who hope that it might be, when the outside world constantly proves pervasively hostile, as well as, on occasion, horrifically violent.

Rebecca Mead, “Literature and Life,” in The Talk of the Town, The New Yorker, June 9 & 16, 2014.