So Sensitive

The other day I mentioned an article published in the New York Times by Jennifer Medina about something called "trigger warnings." Basically, at universities around the country students are calling for professors to warn them about potential "triggers" in literature or movies that could cause students to experience negative emotions, most likely due to past trauma (for example, rape). Students believe that they should then have the opportunity to opt out of the material if necessary. The question is whether or not educators should be obligated to provide this sort of information.

[All the triggers! Another interesting article here]

Personally, I feel that this is unnecessary at the collegiate level. It's unfortunate that people must endure negative, life-altering events, but if we must accommodate every single student there will be nothing left to read or watch. Even children's books could pose a potential threat- no Charlotte's Web because it might upset the vegetarians and animal rights activists. Bridge to Terabithia won't work because of those students who have experienced the death of a friend. And forget Harry Potter- the devoutly religious would undoubtedly feel terribly uncomfortable. 

We can also assume that most people in college are attempting to "make it" in the real world, trying to acquire the skills necessary to make successful livings for themselves professionally. How will the potential lawyer handle a rape case if they can't read a book with a scene depicting the crime? How will the art museum curator deal with graphic representations of historical abuse when they struggle to watch movies depicting the Holocaust? 

A sugar-coated education isn't really a legitimate education, in my opinion. In order to be knowledgeable about a particular subject area you have to take the good with the bad. You can't claim to be an expert on say, Latin American literature without reading Allende or Marquez, who both boast a plethora of controversial and offensive subject throughout their bodies of work. A well-rounded education is just that- not something that can be hand-picked.

So often the things that disturb us or strike an emotional chord within us are what allows us to connect to a piece of literature, art or a movie. The memories it invokes are what makes us take comprehension and analysis to a whole new level, past the typical surface-level bullshit to a place where we start thinking on a more complex plane. Staying safe and comfortable makes this damn near impossible. Being affected pushes us to be more involved in whatever it is we're pursuing.

Readers, especially those after the age of, say, sixteen or seventeen, also have a responsibility to protect themselves (as opposed to relying on a teacher or professor to do so). If a young woman has been sexually assaulted and knows she cannot handle being exposed to this sort of content she needs to be proactive and look up texts she might think will leave her vulnerable. The same goes with the young man who spent time in rehab, the girl who used to cut herself, and the boy who is still wounded by never making any of the sports teams he tried out for. It sounds insensitive, I know, but we have to teach young adults to be their own advocates and to not rely on others to make things easier for them. It's simply not how the world works. The internet is their friend- Google the books or movies first and determine if there are triggers, rather than relying on others to check first.

With all this being said, I do have to note that by speaking against trigger lists I'm inherently trusting educators to make the right choices in curriculum. If we're looking at the public school system teachers need to make sure they're offering age-appropriate texts and that they're consciousness of their clientele and their needs. I think as students grow older the need to be as careful wears off, meaning by the time college rolls around professors should have carte blanche to go for it balls to the wall. 

I don't necessarily believe that every student should have to read or view everything, no matter what. If a student decides that whatever is being studied really is just too much for them, then an alternate assignment can be given, as long as the system isn't being taken advantage of. I've had students make this call for them in class before and I've happily obliged. I just don't think that every teacher everywhere, especially at the university level, should be obligated to constantly provide lists of triggers. We need to let people discover them on their own- it's one of the best parts of reading.

Trigger warnings- yay or nay? 


  1. I couldn't agree with you more! I struggled with my feelings on this when I first started seeing it discussed pretty much everywhere online. I don't want to diminish the trauma anyone lived through and know that PTSD is a real thing that can be triggered by movies, books, etc., but especially on the college level there needs to be a level of personal responsibility and advocacy, as you said. There is absolutely no way to warn against every possible trigger, and that is not what the real world is like. A college student is an adult who should be aware of their own triggers and actively advocate for him or herself if necessary. I also think it is impossible to provide warnings for all possible triggers because every person who struggles with this has had a unique experience, and there is no way for a professor to anticipate every possibility.

  2. I completely agree with you. I'm actually pretty shocked that UCSB is one of the schools wanting to do this.

  3. This was an Awesome post- totally agree with you!

  4. Nay to trigger warnings, especially for college kids. Honestly, if they can’t decide for themselves, then maybe they shouldn’t be in college (harsh, I know).