There's a discussion that's been heating up for a while in various corners of the internet, and now at a number of US colleges, about how we take in information, and whether that information should be treated with what essentially constitutes a warning label – so long as it's likely to impact anyone in an unfavorable way due to their personal background, emotional state and/or life experiences. We call these emotional disclaimers "trigger warnings", alerting a consumer that the content within might offend or cause distress.
"This is triggering" (and therefore requires a trigger warning) is a phrase you might see in the comments section of an online article that addresses racism, rape, war, anorexia or any number of subjects about which a discussion may not leave the reader with a care-free, fuzzy sort of feeling.
It's a phrase that's been requested this semester by a number of college students to be applied to classic books — The Great Gatsby (for misogyny and violence), Huck Finn (for racism), Things Fall Apart (for colonialism and religious persecution), Mrs. Dalloway (for suicide), Shakespeare (for … you name it). These students are asking for what essentially constitute red-flag alerts to be placed, in some cases, upon the literature itself, or, at least, in class syllabuses, and invoked prior to lectures.
No one should be caught off guard, is the well-intentioned argument. Nobody should have to feel victimized, or traumatized, particularly when they may have already been a victim of a trauma mirrored on the pages of a book. And, of course, everyone should have access to the information they need to judge for themselves what they should or should not be exposed to; there should be no horror by homework, nor any rape reminder by reading assignment.
Of course, life doesn't come with a trigger warning, even if it should. And while a classroom conversation about emotionally fraught subjects would seem not only advisable but also just part of any decent teaching method, slapping a trigger warning on classic works of literature seems a short step away from book banning, a kind of censorship based on offenses to individual feelings.
The push for trigger warnings surely comes from a good place, but it's nonetheless troubling. For one thing, they're not even truly necessary: any classic work of literature is easily Googleable, with plots and basic themes easy to glean and prepare oneself for within moments. Unlike, say, the latest episode of Game of Thrones, or a violent video game, both of which might come with an ADULT CONTENT warning but likely wouldn't have been assigned for class – and neither of which anyone would want "spoiled" online first.
Good intentions notwithstanding, any blanket trigger warning is bound to fail, because what it hopes to protect is only as known as the interpretation of the individual reader or viewer. And the freedom and creativity of those who create art is bound to suffer when their artwork becomes not simply judged – because everything is judged by others –but also relegated to categories of "triggering".
How do we create anything at all when the way a reader feels – that ultimate unpredictable piece of any artistic puzzle – becomes the most important or validated part of artwork? Talk of trigger warnings reminds me of the young-adult classic The Giver, in which Lois Lowry depicts a society that seems utterly utopian, free of pain or anything hurtful or negative. But, the reader slowly realizes, that society is actually a dystopia, eradicated of the varied, often unpleasant emotions, memories and reactions that we as humans necessarily feel to things, whether those things be in art or life.
In The Giver, the main character finds there is something more important than a society that's free from pain. It's a society in which we feel. That, of course, is the intention of art itself: it's not meant to shield us from pain so much as offer a vessel through which we can cope, grow and even move past tragedy. If we warn people with a flashing red light that inside great works of literature they are likely to find pain, we do a disservice to the conversations, and the healing, meant to come through the act of reading itself.