Why ‘trigger warnings’? We already live in a hair-trigger world.


Academia has always been an easy target for mockery. Henry Kissinger observed that university politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so low, and one logical extension is that liberal arts departments are steeped in self-importance precisely because their impact on the “real world” is negligible.

Ergo, the recent campus phenomenon known as the “trigger warning.” Originating on certain feminist, self-help and social activist blogs, trigger warnings are meant to inform readers that the ensuing material deals with subjects, such as war or sexual violence, that might upset those suffering from post-traumatic stress related to those issues.

Now the practice is creeping toward liberal arts syllabi. The UC Santa Barbara student Senate recently passed a resolution calling for professors to label potentially upsetting course material and even excuse “triggered” students from some classes. Oberlin College in Ohio has already implemented such guidelines, advising instructors not to assign triggering material at all unless it’s directly relevant to the lesson.


Distressing as such potential incursions on academic freedom and inquiry may be, the real trend here may not be trigger warnings but the torrent of outrage they’ve set off. They’re ripe for bemused chatter, to say the least. A New Republic article supplied a list of warning-worthy triggers: bullying, sizism, ablism, transphobia, slut shaming, alcohol and (seriously) animals in wigs. In December, Slate declared 2013 “the year of the trigger warning.” Even the satirical Onion has been called out for failing to warn readers about disturbing content in fake stories.

Meanwhile, UCSB and Oberlin are turned into symbols of the widespread scourge of campus political correctness and the glorification of victimhood.

I’ll admit that some colleges indulge students as much as educate them, but I’d venture to say this isn’t a grand mal social movement as much as it is just two overreacting schools. Like Antioch College in Ohio, whose bizarre sexual-offense policy of 1991 wrongly gave the impression that every liberal arts student in America was required to ask their intimate partners questions like “can I touch you here?” during intimate moments, Oberlin’s trigger warnings surely have more to do with Oberlin itself than anything else. Or, considering its proximity to Antioch, maybe it’s an Ohio thing.

Still, we’re indignant and loving it. We’re blaming the baby boomers for raising the millennials to be such fragile and special snowflakes. We talking about how ironic it is that trigger warning culture appears to be the domain of the most privileged, coddled students in the world.

But that’s beside the point. Because as much as we might enjoy poking fun at delicate English majors, the truth is we’re all on a hair trigger these days. We may not have PTSD, but consciously or not, we customize our information delivery systems so we mostly see, hear and read what won’t upset us too much.

Liberals stay away from Fox News. Conservatives shield themselves from MSNBC. We choose to live in particular neighborhoods or regions in part because we want neighbors who share our values. We rant away on social media, but we’re usually just talking to people who already agree with us.

We call that an echo chamber, but isn’t it also a way of living inside one big trigger warning? How much difference is there, really, between refusing to read Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” (a trigger targeted novel at Oberlin) because it deals with troubling racial and religious issues and refusing to listen to opposing views that might make you angry?

That’s not to compare classic literature to cable news. Given the choice between Fox or MSNBC, we’d be better off skipping both and reading a good book instead. But as we indulge in the great American pastime of accusing young people of being made of weaker stuff than their elders, we’d also do well to examine our own avoidance mechanisms.

And, while we’re at it, we can hope that UCSB professors aren’t “resolved” to go the way of their counterparts at Oberlin. Next thing we know, the Department for the Study of Animals in Wigs will lose its funding. And that will be very upsetting.

Twitter: @meghan_daum