Trigger warning: this article is about trigger warnings, which may be upsetting to some people if they have ever had a traumatic experience related to trigger warnings. If this is true of you, you had better stop reading this RIGHT NOW.
Okay, now we can proceed. The student senate at the University of California in Santa Barbara recently passed a resolution urging the school to “begin the process of instituting mandatory ‘trigger warnings’ on class syllabi”. These trigger warnings are meant to alert people who have had traumatic experiences that a text may contain something they will find upsetting. Similar demands have been made at other schools. One of the texts often cited as potentially upsetting is The Great Gatsby. (No, I’m not making this up.) According to a student at Rutgers University, a trigger warning for this novel might be: “suicide,” “domestic abuse” and “graphic violence”. According to an opinion piece in the Rutgers student newspaper, Gatsby “…possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.” It’s been a while since I’ve read Fitzgerald’s novel, but all I recall with regards to violent content is that a woman is struck and killed by a car, and later her father shoots and kills a man who he mistakenly believes was the one who killed her. If that’s enough to trigger somebody, that person’s head would probably explode if he were to read Treasure Island, or, for that matter, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Oberlin College has taken this idea further. In a recent teachers guide, they advised professors that “anything could be a trigger”, and they should “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” Triggering materials may relate to “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” So, to be safe, one should try to avoid almost the whole of world literature. In response to widespread criticism, Oberlin has tabled this policy.
This push for trigger warnings is really a form of feel good liberalism. Students who demand such policies can feel that they are “protecting” people who have been traumatized in some way. The real effect in the long run will to stymie free speech and academic inquiry. We live in a world full of disturbing ideas and events. It is not the job of the university to shield students from these things. It is, rather, to broaden their sense of the world, in all its good and bad aspects.