#657 Musings Beyond the Bunker (Thursday May 11)
MOTHERS DAY TRIGGERING
I just received an email from Nespresso regarding special Mothers Day gifts (they send holiday promotions regularly). This one, however, was a note that “We know Mothers Day can be difficult for some people” and allowed for turning off receipt of Mothers Day promotions. I don’t understand the triggering nature of Mothers Day or the need to provide warnings and deletion of messages. Having lost a child, I would have to think we are among the most vulnerable at moments such as these. Maybe we are just made of tougher stuff, but I hardly think Nespresso’s focus on the trauma of receiving a message about a holiday sale is necessary or even helpful, even for those who might suffer some discomfort. We all must face our traumas, our fears, and our sensitivities.
Mother’s day is a sad reminder for us—yet the day is a happy reminder of motherhood (or, in the case of Fathers Day, fatherhood) and our good fortune to have the parents and children with whom we have been blessed.
What’s next? Should we provide trigger warnings to people experiencing a micro-aggression to Christmas because of the exclusionary nature of the holiday? Should families of 9/11 victims be afforded the opportunity to delete any messages that might touch on Islam, since they might be triggered by the recollection that the perpetrators of that crime were Muslim? Should we provide trigger warnings to Native Americans on Columbus Day? We need to be mindful of each other’s sensitivities, yet we also should acknowledge that we all must deal with our sensitivities as best as we can, without burdening the rest of society.
TRIGGER WARNINGS, REDUX
We are in the midst of an anti-free speech movement. Across America, we are told that there is some information, some literature, some movies, and some lectures that are just too much for certain listeners to endure. These things contain what is called “triggering language.” That a word, phrase, plot point, historical reference, or opinion might be triggering of discomfort, marginalization, and discomfort might very well be true. Decent behavior would require that we not act in ways that knowingly (or even unknowingly) might reasonably be perceived as harmful to another.
But restricting that speech is just too much. While not as drastic as the actual banning of books—from the political right and left—it nonetheless is dystopian in scope to try to label every possible utterance or writing when some arbiter deems it to be “triggering” to someone. I recall first reading Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in high school. The portrayal of Shylock was disturbing but it forced me to confront historic facts about antisemitism. If there were a trigger warning, would I have refused to be so challenged?
There are times when someone who might be triggered by certain things might engage in acts of self-protection. If one has a deep-seated revulsion of violence, skip the Fast and Furious franchise. If the holocaust brings back memories or fears, don’t enroll in a class on Holocaust studies. But the casual (and perhaps even offensive) introduction of complex issues—like Shylock or the use of the “n-word” in Huck Finn, can actually elevate and enlighten. Who wasn’t moved by Huck’s epiphany regarding the humanity of Jim?
Trigger warnings squelch free speech. Across America, professors and other educators are fearful that they might not adequately “protect” their students from triggering language or concepts. Failing to adequately provide a trigger warning, might result in a lecturer being hauled in front of a dean or an academic committee for having committed an aggression against some aggrieved listener. Even a well-intentioned practitioner of trigger-warning labeling must anticipate not merely triggering a broad group of people—but potentially each participating listener.
Isn’t college (and, for that matter, high school) a place where we run the risk of being triggered? Aren’t we told that we must face our fears and demons, that humanity must put a mirror before itself and see the harsh realities of its own cruelty? Aren’t we supposed to hear opinions that are discomforting? Shouldn’t we be forced to understand, let alone find meaning in, the positions of others?
A PUSH BACK ON TRIGGER WARNINGS
Meanwhile, at Cornell there was a breath of fresh air. Cornell students passed a resolution demanding that a variety of topics must be accompanied by trigger warnings. These include topics like hate crimes, xenophobia, and harassment. The event that sparked the resolution was a Korean-American student assigned a reading that included a graphic rape scene. Other students around the country have complained about reading books that reference bodily functions (like menstruation). Where does it end?
Well, apparently it ends at Cornell, with the administration vetoing the undergraduate student assembly’s resolution urging inclusion in class syllabi warnings about “traumatic content.”
The concept of triggering and our moral responsibility to avoid it, comes out of a post-Vietnam war concern with those who suffered post-traumatic stress, typically from participation in combat. Now, it seems a device to restrict speech and make every lecture a potential danger zone for those simply made to feel uncomfortable. Professor Amna Khalid, a history professor at Carleton College, is an expert on the subject. She notes that trigger warnings not only are ineffective, but they disempower people by infantilizing them when they should be being prepared for life as adults. And, as she notes, most challenges in life come without warning. We all must learn to cope with challenges.
Good manners and basic humanity dictate that one ought not make someone uncomfortable if it can be avoided. Good scholarship requires that issues—traumatic as they might be—can be discussed in a college classroom or be confronted in literature.
Life often is triggering. Life is often uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s even traumatic. Better to learn of it in an intellectual context, through historic materials, in an environment of learning, surrounded by one’s peers, than to be faced with it for the first time in real time—in living life.
Have a great day,
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