Too Quick on the Trigger

I do not begrudge you the ability to precede anything you write, say or do with a warning. That is your right, and I would not want to take it away from you even if I could.

But there is, of course, a disparity of some magnitude between prefacing your own words with a cautionary notice – in this case a ‘trigger warning’, a practice which has gained some campaigning traction of late, especially in higher education – and demanding that others do the same. And there is an even greater gulf between doing so in a private capacity and wishing for universities and other public bodies to institute similar arrangements as a matter of policy. Such measures, especially when some advocates start to argue for their establishment out of civilised necessity, begin to resemble censorship on the sly. While it does not ostensibly interfere with the individual’s freedom of speech – a vital and inalienable right as that is – attaching warnings to undesirable material, those writings and works which contain unwanted aspects, could lead to the driving away of potential readers or viewers. Forcibly impeding the free dissemination of ideas is still censorious, even if the hat worn while doing so is one of kindness and concern.

And given that some of the most contentious and important issues are also the most uncomfortable to witness and confront – think of female genital mutilation, for example, or torture – is it really the right idea to give citizens, especially those who go to universities to gain an education, messy and potentially combative and rowdy as that is, an opt-out clause on matters such as these?

Even greater – or at least less quotidian – aspects are also at stake here. When one prefaces a work, be it literature, film or even reportage, with a warning as regards content, that work is denuded of some of its impact. Imagine sitting down to watch Saving Private Ryan, for example, with advance knowledge (and not just that – also an opportunity to vacate your seat) of the beach-borne carnage which characterises the opening scene. Quite a few, I imagine, would take the opportunity either to walk out or to steel themselves for what comes ahead; and whichever way this scenario works out,  the emotional and physical impact of the spectacle is lessened. The drama is diminished, and the action upon which much of the moral basis of the film is predicated is somehow weakened. (I am of course being deliberately facetious; but what about if the same were true of Shakespeare’s most emotionally fraught scenes, Dickens’ most wrenching depictions of poverty, or even Orwell’s journalism in documenting the sad fates of Britain’s poorest. Every instance allows for a subtle degradation of the art form.)

James Robins writes effectively – and affectingly – about the possible effects trigger warnings may have on our great literature; but it goes deeper than that: worryingly, ‘t[his] policy could extend to History’, to journalism. Consider these arguments carefully.

Another problem – perhaps more prosaic than the desire to preserve the integrity of art itself or to maintain a suitably open, intellectually challenging atmosphere at our universities – cannot be overlooked entirely: beyond simply debating the principle of matters, it appears that trigger warnings might not even work.

An esteemed Professor of Psychology at Harvard, Richard J. McNally, in a comprehensive summary of the relevant research, outlines this argument as follows:

Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.

This flies rather dramatically in the face of many campaigners; they, after all, argue that trigger warnings are vital in making those who have been the victims of trauma feel integrated into and safe within society.

Indeed, it appears that ‘[a]ccording to a rigorous analysis by the Institute of Medicine, exposure therapy is the most efficacious treatment for PTSD’.

And these statements, while they do not – of course – diminish the rights of individuals to attach warnings to the beginning of their own work, might lessen the justification for doing so; if it does not help, after all, why should even vocal advocates persist with the practice?

There we have it. Four salient reasons to resist the rise of trigger warnings in higher education and general usage. For the sake of resisting censorship by stealth, for the sake of artistic integrity, for the sake of maintaining serious intellectual openness in higher education, and for the sake of those suffering from trauma themselves, I beg you – don’t get too trigger-happy.

This article was originally published by The Gerasites.

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