Friday, 15 May 2015

Spare Me the Sanctimonious Bleating About Trigger Warnings

The New Republic is carrying an article by Jerry Coyne lamenting the rise of the trigger warning, and specifically the idea that college literature courses should consider applying them to the Western canon. Without much explanation, Coyne links trigger warnings to the "decline in free speech at American universities". It is not clear exactly what a trigger warning prevents one from saying.

He is particularly concerned about an article by Columbia University's Multicultural Awareness Advisory Board that had appeared in that college's paper. It described a student's distress after reading rape scenes in Metamorphosis (which had triggered memories of her own experience of sexual assault) and being dismissed by the teacher. Evidently unable to suppress his own sympathy, Coyne hedges about the specific case:

There is something gloriously stupid about this. Coyne seems to be trying to have it both ways: "I would have provided a trigger warning to this student, but I would never have been so crass as to say the words 'trigger warning'". This is a familiar reactionary tic, driven by the same pig headedness that detests political correctness for its requirement that people don't always spew the first offensive crap that jumps into their heads.

Having concluded that trigger warnings per se are not that bad a thing after all. Coyne could have stopped after four paragraphs, allowing us to agree that warning people about potential personal sensitivities is hardly an attack on the first amendment. Instead he spends the rest of the article talking about how much he hates them.

Coyne trenchantly enumerates all the great works of literature that no-one will be allowed to read anymore (probably) if trigger warning Fascism (and he does use the word Fascism) takes hold. The Bible sanctions rape; Huckleberry Finn is full of racism and Anne Frank's Diary contains antisemitism. Perhaps there's an argument in there somewhere, but Coyne lost sight of it long ago. His article becomes an ill tempered rant about other people's sensitivity, culminating in a weirdly defiant account of his trip to Auschwitz.

Should everyone go to Auschwitz? Perhaps. I should certainly go, but what about people whose parents died there? Or survivors who remember it just fine thankyou very much? Unlike Coyne (whose appetite for understanding the worst in people is laudatory), some people don't need a reminder that ordinary people are capable of brutal things.

"Life" as Coyne says "is triggering". Nobody denies as much, but what the trigger warning sensibility acknowledges is that it is not always triggering for everyone to the same degree. Some of us (Coyne is clearly one) can blithely ignore the warnings. Others can be grateful that they increasingly get a choice about whether to follow link that may lead them to get lumbered with flashbacks to their own sexual assault, accident or suicide attempt. 

These sorts of consideration can be managed entirely without any impact on freedom speech; the inclusion of a brief parenthetical "TW" next to links or items on a syllabus is all it takes. If that offends you (and being offended by trigger warnings themselves is infinitely more obtuse than being offended by violence, sexism or racism) then you can simply refer to the content in advance as Coyne helpfully suggests. It's easy. 

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