Trigger warning for people triggered by skepticism about trigger warnings. Okay? Here we go... from Saturday's NYT:

Should students about to read “The Great Gatsby” be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism—like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart”—have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans. The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools.

Express the tiniest doubt about the usefulness of trigger warnings—or their ubiquity and overuse in some corners of the web—and you will be accused of not caring about rape victims. But pause to consider that people are demanding trigger warnings on everything from discussions about colonialism to the works of William Shakespeare to, ahem, certain sex-advice columnists and it becomes clear that this isn't just about protecting rape victims from content that may "cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder." (Gotta get this off my chest: If someone experiences anti-Semitism-related PTSD symptoms after reading The Merchant of Venice in a college course... then someone failed to read the whole play and someone deserves to be flunked. (Failing grades, of course, should probably come with trigger warnings.) And gotta get this off my chest too: "Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct," reads Oberlin College's draft guide on trigger warnings, "but also to anything that might cause trauma." (Emphasis added.) Put a trigger warning on anything that might cause trauma—doesn't that seems impossibly broad?)

Here's what has always annoyed me about trigger warnings—even when they're being used for their original purpose, i.e. to warn rape victims about content that discusses rape and not to warn morons about Shylock: Someone who uses a trigger warning before writing about rape or sexual violence will probably write about rape and sexual violence with enough sensitivity that the trigger warning wasn't necessary. And someone who writes about rape and sexual violence in an insensitive manner won't be sensitive enough to use a trigger warning. So the kind of writing about rape and sexual violence that may actually trigger someone won't have trigger warnings and the kind of writing about rape and sexual violence that's unlikely to trigger someone will have trigger warnings.

So what purpose, then, do trigger warnings serve? It seems to me that they exist not to protect the reader, but to draw attention to the writer. You've heard of false consciousness? Well, trigger warnings are false conscientiousness. The writer who uses trigger warnings isn't saying, "I care about you." The writer is saying, "Look at meeeeee." It's narcissism masquerading as concern.

And then there's this: there's really no way to predict what could possibly trigger someone:

As the list of trigger warning–worthy topics continues to grow, there's scant research demonstrating how words "trigger" or how warnings might help. Most psychological research on P.T.S.D. suggests that, for those who have experienced trauma, "triggers" can be complex and unpredictable, appearing in many forms, from sounds to smells to weather conditions and times of the year. In this sense, anything can be a trigger—a musky cologne, a ditsy pop song, a footprint in the snow. As a means of navigating the Internet, or setting the tone for academic discussion, the trigger warning is unhelpful. Once we start imposing alerts on the basis of potential trauma, where do we stop?

Triggers can be complex and unpredictable and they can be anything. Certain words, smells, pop songs, plays, advice columnists. So if trigger warnings are about protecting people with PTSD from flashbacks and panic attacks—which can be induced by anything and everything—and not about protecting delicate flowers from the sadz, then we're going to need to slap trigger warnings on anything and everything.


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