The OF Blog: A few qualms about the usage of "trigger warnings" in literary contexts

Monday, May 19, 2014

A few qualms about the usage of "trigger warnings" in literary contexts

A couple of days ago, The New York Times published an article entitled "Warning:  The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm."  It is a piece presenting various sides on the recent rise in requests on college campuses and elsewhere for there to be "trigger warnings" for media and literature in case traumatized individuals encounter something that might set off a trauma-related reaction.  It is a pop sociological piece, more interested in introducing the topic for a general audience than exploring the matter in depth, but nonetheless it is worth reading if you are not familiar with the issue.

For those who are aware of the increased requests for "trigger warnings," likely there have been some strong reactions.  For many, especially those who have been the victims of traumatic events or know people who have suffered through such, the idea of there being "warnings" makes sense, as it enables them to focus their sympathy on people who have and continue to suffer from episodes related to horrific past personal events.  Safety, particularly of the preventative type, is paramount here and it is easy to empathize with them.  However, there are others who believe that pre-emptive labeling of certain things, especially those that possess great "cultural capital," as literary classics in particular do, can be ultimately detrimental, as such labels might unfairly and unduly influence popular perceptions of certain "difficult" works.

Literature, along with great swaths of human material societies, are not designed to be "safe havens." Whenever ideas and realities clash, whether it be in fiction, poetry, non-fiction, or other written, illustrated, or performed arts, the expression of this violent collision possesses the potential to replicate very real and very hurtful human moments.  If it didn't, then these arts would not contain the elements necessary for us to relate to them, to grasp them, to understand at least a sliver of what is being expressed in these works.  To shunt these works away under a "trigger warning:  X" moniker is to risk making them off limits, to be something that might be re-interpreted along the lines of one or a few lines of potential reader reaction rather than something that might cause a greater spectrum of reactions to be seen and heard.

But even this view risks missing a greater, more substantive point:  literature that discusses disturbing elements may just be cathartic.  Catharsis is a vital part of human interactions with the world.  Encountering something, whether it be "real" or "art," that enables very real fears to be presented in more digestible snippets that then can be worked at and manipulated by our reasoning faculties is something to be treasured.  In writing this article, I was reminded of this quote by G.K. Chesterton:
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Change the words slightly, perhaps substitute "traumas" for dragons and "fiction" for "fairy tales" and perhaps "overcome" for "killed" and a pithy commentary on why certain "dark" types of literature that are read, viewed, or performed are valuable emerges:  "Fiction does not tell children that traumas exist.  Children (or perhaps survivors?) already know that traumas exist.  Fiction tells (children/survivors) that traumas can be overcome."  Sometimes, I believe that this role of catharsis is overlooked in discussing the issue of safety/protection when it comes to literature and media.

Mind you, this is not intended to belittle or dismiss the viewpoints of those who view things differently.  Instead, I believe that in considering which works are appropriate (after all, de Sade almost certainly is not suitable fare for elementary/primary school students), some trust should be placed with the authors and lecturers that the material may not be just a trigger for traumatic flashbacks but also potentially something that enables a cathartic release and the beginning or continuation of a healing process.  That last element, unfortunately, is not discussed as much when considering this issue.  Perhaps it is time that we consider fragility and resiliency together and keep empathy unaltered by excessive worry at the center of this societal interaction with literature and media.

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