Grassroots Commentary

Trigger Warnings

Bill Franklin · Jun. 2, 2014

When the American colonies decided to part company from England, they formalized it in a declaration to the world, the Declaration of Independence, which a committee of five was chosen to write. The heavy lifting fell to Thomas Jefferson who was well-read and well-spoken and, it was thought, would produce the best written expression of their rationale. His draft was only slightly modified by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, two other committee members, before it went into a “groupwrite” session by the entire delegation.

In an effort to give Jefferson comfort while he witnessed the editing and amputations of his precious draft in surgery, Franklin told him a story of a hatter who was about to open a shop.

The hatter had a sign made to advertise his business which said, “John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money” followed by an image of a hat. Before hanging his sign, Franklin continued, Thompson asked the opinion of several friends. One recommended that the word “hatter” be removed since it was redundant with “makes hats.” Another said the word “makes” should be excised because customers wouldn’t care that it was Thompson who made the hats. A third friend noted that the term “for ready money” wasn’t necessary since merchandise wasn’t sold on credit. Finally, a fourth opined that “sells hats,” could be stricken because Thompson surely couldn’t be expected to give them away. In the end, Franklin sighed, the sign simply said, “John Thompson,” with a picture of a hat. It seemed to both that Jefferson’s declaration was headed to the same fate.

If the PC police have their way, the fate of Thompson’s hat sign may be where higher education is headed in coming years. To quote Gertrude Stein, there will be no “there” there in college education.

What started as a radical feminist left wing idea for website content labeling has now mutated to college campuses – as radical mutations are wont to go these days. The original idea was not without merit – namely, to warn women who had suffered a traumatic experience, like physical abuse or rape, that they were about to be exposed to content involving abuse or rape on a website or in a book or film. The exposure might possibly trigger flashbacks to the personal experience, it was thought, which could trigger unresolved post-traumatic panic attacks, emotional outbursts, urges to flee, etc. Since we never know what has been suffered in the private lives of others, a general warning that content contains extreme social pathologies in some form seems like a good idea. Forewarned is forearmed, therefore, sensitive people could prepare themselves or opt out of the content.

Most parents of socially immature children probably appreciate warnings that content may be inappropriate for children of a particular age or that it contains material they may not want their children exposed to. Even mature adults, I among them, appreciate a heads up that extreme violence is contained in something they’ve unwitting chosen to experience. It might not trigger the reliving of an unresolved experience; however, we routinely warn people that something non-routine should be expected – e.g. “roads slippery when wet” or “not suitable for small children.”

What harm could “trigger warnings” cause you ask? None until the predictably metastatic over-reach morphs into insanity mode, as all movements of this type inevitably do, thereby encompassing even the most benign content. Trigger warning have now been proposed for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it uses the “N” word and is strongly racist in content. No matter that Huck, an orphan, rescued Jim, a slave, and was deeply conflicted because Huck saw Jim as a father figure. But one would have to read – indeed study and reflect on – the novel to arrive at that understanding. And how would any easily offended person get to that point if forewarned that it uses the “N” word and is racist tripe?

This is the way the perpetually aggrieved manage to contaminate the critical thinking of others. They quarantine it. They label it negatively before it can be adjudged objectively. If they can call Mark Twain and Huck Finn racists before a student can even consider the content with a neutral mindset, in time they can control what people learn. They might even extend their influence to book banning – as has happened to the classics in some school systems – despite the fact that not one of the trigger warning advocates is likely educated in literary criticism or is even a trained librarian.

Was Mark Twain a racist? Well, he was born in 1835 – 25 years before the outbreak of the Civil War – in the border state of Missouri. Twain’s Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were 10 to 12-year olds in a setting that existed along the Mississippi River around 1840 so both are most likely caricatures of Twain himself as an adolescent. Slavery was the norm in the Deep South and widespread in Missouri. Because it was not part of the Confederacy, Missouri was exempted from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. What do you think? Was Twain a racist?

Would it surprise you to learn that Twain was an abolitionist? That he believed Lincoln’s proclamation didn’t go far enough? That he paid the tuition for a black man to attend Yale Law School and for another to study ministry at a university in the south? Would you expect a student to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Adventures of Tom Sawyer with a different perspective first knowing this about Twain? I would. That is what is wrong with trigger warnings.

Life is a traumatic experience for everyone at some level. So do trigger warnings mean traumatized victims of racism will never read Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man or Harper Lee’s equally classic To Kill a Mockingbird because of their racist content? Will victims of sexual assault never read Toni Morrison’s Beloved or The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s moving story of a girl raped, murdered, and watching from heaven the aftermath of her murder unfold on earth? Is the story sad? Yes. Redemptive? Absolutely.

If trigger warning advocates have their way, college professors would be required to warn students that, lest their delicate sensibilities be offended otherwise, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice smacks of anti-Semitism in its historically accurate reprehensible portrayal of Shylock the money lender. Failing to read this 17th century characterization of Elizabethan anti-Semitism, however, would deprive a student of understanding how bigoted Shakespeare’s world was, not to mention never know Portia’s importunate plea to Shylock, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d …” which students not far from entering their life’s work would do well to memorize.

After singing a verse of “I’m a Little Snowflake,” the students of the University of California at Santa Barbara followed Ohio’s Oberlin College and issued a policy proposal that professors should include trigger warnings in their syllabi for student readings that involve rape or sexual assaults, pornography, suicide, graphic violence, gore, self-abuse, and kidnapping. Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays include something on their list. Some plays include them all. When Prince Hamlet draws his last breath, there are so many corpses lying about that I can imagine on a small stage like the Globe that the sole survivor, Horatio, would have had little room to step.

The trigger warning proposal of the little snowflakes at UCSB surely would be required for the Bible, some parts of which would carry an “X” rating were they made into a theater film.

Nor would Sophocles’ Theban trilogy escape their PC-ness. In Oedipus Rex the protagonist unwittingly marries his mother after killing (murder) the man who, unknown to Oedipus at the time, was his father (patricide.) After fostering several children by his mother (incest), the true identity of mom, dad, and junior become known. Mom hangs herself in shame (suicide.) Oedipus rips the brooch from her hanging body and uses its pin to punch out his eyes (self-abuse) out before asking the townsfolk to send him into exile (alienation) as punishment for his vile mistake.

Likewise Antigone, another of the Theban plays, would require content warning. The eponymous heroine is sealed in a cave to die. Warning: all claustrophobics beware. After 2,300 years, Sophocles is the gift that keeps on offending.

Indeed the entire canon of Western literature would have to be content labeled if the snowflake policy becomes widespread.

Maybe life will carry a trigger warning.

Predictably the proponents of this goofy idea have given little thought to its implementation beyond the initial do-goodism. To name a few, who decides what type of content deserves warning? Which past experiences qualify as “traumatic”? How is student abuse of the policy prevented? For example, War and Peace containing over a half million words in about 1,500 pages is assigned by a lit prof. Every sane student would groan. The clever ones would be “traumatized” by something in Tolstoy’s tome. “Hey, Prof, I had a near-death experience like Prince Andrei; I can’t go through that again.” Voila! It requires little imagination to see where this is headed. “The entire college educational experience is traumatizing. I opt out. Give me my degree; I’m outa’ here.”

The real trigger warning in this silly idea is not the infantilized content precautions its advocates propose. The real trigger warning is that the idea would be proposed at all for serious consideration. Here is yet another camel’s nose in the tent to limit the freedom of the many for the sake of a few – and that for specious reasons. Once again a metastasizing minority is emboldened when given an inch to take a yard.

Get over it, I say!

If a person has been so traumatized by a past experience that he or she becomes psychologically unhinged by revisiting it in literature or film, I’d ask whether that person should be in the classroom or in therapy.

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