Coming out of my self-imposed blackout period. Apologies for being gone so long. Wasn’t feeling all that inspired by the general topics that were out there, but I’ve finally found a few that got my gears twisting again.
So today, let’s talk about this recent phenomenon of “triggering” and requested “trigger warnings.”
According to an excellent Guardian article on the movement, “Triggering” 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.”
Now, this brings a few thoughts to mind.
1) A digital native generation that is entering or currently in college is essentially requesting that its required reading be thoroughly tagged with metadata. Not all that surprising, in theory.
2) This must be the most massively traumatized generation in history, and all before they have reached college age no less, otherwise why is this happening?
3) What type of current college student experiences trauma triggered by fictionalized accounts of “colonialism?”
Before I get web-slapped for being insensitive to those who have experience severe, deep, or even shallow trauma- allow me to assure you dear readers that I am not without a soul, and I am not without empathy. I am terribly sorry that people experience pain in their lifetimes. I am sorry that most often it is inflicted completely without any reason or cause. I understand that some of this trauma is so bone-shakingly deep that medication and years of therapy only scratch the surface of the underlying fear or suffering that pools in the soul of its sufferers like a dark, swelling ocean with no horizon.
But I have to say I don’t believe that never addressing, acknowledging, or facing the elements in life that may ever remind you of the trauma or the perpetrator is the solution to managing it. Here I’d like to insert an analogy: antibacterial hand soap. No, no, stick with me here. I promise there will be dividends…
The United States fears germs, bacteria and sickness in a very real way. And so we were ready pawns when the soap and personal hygiene industry began to flood the market with the daddy of all soaps- “antibacterial”- presented as the solution to killing all the tiny creepy crawlies we couldn’t even imagine. And yet. And yet and yet. As it turns out, antibacterial hand soap may also kill good bacteria, and reduce our body’s innate ability to fight off germs and viruses. In fact, the proliferation of triclosan, a leading ingredient in over 75% of antibacterial hand soaps might be a contributing factor in the rise of “antibiotic resistant superbugs” to such an extent that the FDA has issued an order for further investigation into whether it should be allowed in consumer products, and Minnesota has voted to ban it outright.
What does this longwinded analogy have to do with these proposed trigger warnings on literature?
Self-censorship, or insisting everyone else in the world draw a wide circle around anything remotely related to your trauma, or trying to eliminate all signs or reminders of that trauma in your life is like bathing in antibacterial hand soap. By avoiding the trauma itself, or using a carefully constructed virtual reality of “all happiness- no trouble” all the time people empower the trauma that ails them, converting it into a super-trauma that is apt to rear its ugly head at any moment. “The push for trigger warnings surely comes from a good place, but it’s nonetheless troubling” says the Guardian article. Yes, like antibacterial hand soap. In theory, all good. In reality, not so good. When you block your body’s ability to handle and build up a resistance to what is reaching out to ail you, essentially you’re disabling yourself.
And this is all tangentially related to this phenomenon of helicopter parenting and over-protective parenting. Oh yes it is. How else to explain this generation of children who are reaching adulthood with no capacity to defend themselves from the pain that life can (does) bring? If parents have been preventing their kids from ever making mistakes, getting hurt, getting dirty, or relieving them of the burden of having to pull themselves out of a period of discomfort, sadness, or frustration, then those kids have developed absolutely no capacity to work through adult and life setbacks of any variety.
Listen- I don’t have kids, but I do have a life. That said, I understand the sentiment behind wanting to protect my someday-children from any pain, but I do not understand the desire to prevent my children from actually experiencing life. From actually living and experiencing life. Life is often pain, life is often disappointment, life is often loneliness, and heartache, and trauma. Life must be lived, and living is often the act of working through pain.
It’s ironic, I just finished reading a novel suggested to me by a friend called “The Sparrow.” If these students had their way, this book’s cover would be slapped full of trigger warning metadata like religion, rape, aliens, cultural inequity. And there are horrifying events at the center of this book which are difficult to read about. But the very principle at the core center of this book is that when something terrible happens you have to face it and talk about that very thing to acknowledge that it happened, to face its effects on you, in order to release its hold on your past. At times the whole book reads like a parable for the power of confession, but it also intricately illustrates the pain of having to go through the process of discussing a trauma. And for that, the book is pretty effective.
All of which brings me back full circle- because the first thing I thought when I read about these requests for “trigger warnings” was the recent study conducted by the New School in NYC which received wide media attention, that “found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.” That, in fact, reading about other people going through emotional experiences helps to develop our own brains’ ability to process, file, and produce appropriate reactions and interactions to emotional situations. In essence, it helps our EQ, our emotional intelligence quotient, which can play a huge role in our success in life.
All of which the Guardian article on this subject states very well in its last paragraph: “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.” Bingo.
For more reading on these “triggers” and their “warnings:”
For more reading on literary fiction as an empathy-builder:
For more reading on Antibacterial Hand Soap: