We all know, now, how dangerous books can be. So dangerous they can’t even be read on a school bus in some jurisdictions. But things are getting worse, much worse, to the point where it appears that “trigger warnings” are now, as they say, a thing. What is a trigger warning? Think of a spoiler alert taken to the next threat level. Lori Horvitz, writing in the Guardian, thinks it may be going too far.
Do we, as citizens of this uncomfortable and unpredictable world, have the luxury and privilege of receiving “trigger warnings” before being exposed to disturbing material about subjects like the Holocaust, lynching, murder and rape?
I taught courses in literature, creative writing and gender studies at the university level for 18 years without being asked for trigger warnings. But, during the past two years, more and more students have asked for them. They cite reasons similar to those given by the four Columbia university students who made headlines last week by insisting that Ovid’s Metamorphoses requires one because of rape scenes in the book.
Last year, when revising the curriculum for a gender-studies related course I teach, I omitted books with sexually violent material to protect my students from responding negatively. The one new book I hadn’t read all the way through before I assigned it (although I researched the book and watched a film based on it) contained a gang rape scene from the point of view of a young child. A small group of students grumbled. One student, in an anonymous teacher evaluation, wrote: “Not providing trigger warnings is not only detrimental to a students’ emotional well-being … but it also represents further invalidation/insult of rape survivors. Providing trigger warnings, honestly, is less of a request and more of a student’s demand for this professor if she intends to teach this class again.”
It is statements like these that make me want to opt out of teaching this material all together.