College students have begun writing letters requesting that their literature come with trigger warnings as if Beowulf was a blog post detailing someone’s horrible life experience. Presumably to keep said students from having to unexpectedly relive their traumatic event. I feel for these avid letter writers but, literature is not the place for trigger warnings.
I do not disagree with the general practice of trigger warnings. Blogs that deal with racism, feminism, LGBTQ, etc. issues tend to feature them as their readers more than likely have experienced some traumatic event in the past. I take no umbrage with that as their goal is to create a safe and inclusive environment. I think the world needs those places. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your overall take on things) the world is not a safe place. The world is dark and full of terrors.
Increasingly as a society we are becoming more and more demanding that the world bends to accommodate everyone. That all things become sterilized and served in such a way to give the consumer a choice in how they want to experience things. But that’s not what life is like and it’s certainly not what literature is designed to do.
Literature is supposed to startle, to move. It is a place where the horrors of a different time can be displayed alongside the joys and the mediocre trappings of everyday life. It is supposed to make you stop and question, to incite conversation. That reaction is important. Those books are important.
The trigger warning, to me, diminishes that effect. A trigger warning gives the reader a choice. It says, “Hey buddy, there’s some stuff here that you may not be able to handle. You don’t have to read this if you don’t want to. Be safe friend.” Which allows for the creation of that bubble of emotional safety.
You cannot expect the world to support your bubble of safety. If we put warnings on literature or we making a “safer” environment or are we giving young readers a reason to further not engage with the work? If your reaction is such that you need a warning will you read that text or pass it up in favor of the bubble?
The secondary effect it has, unintentionally, is to reduce a work to its trauma. When confronted with a blog that has a trigger warning that says, violence or rape then the mind automatically thinks that this is a story about violence and rape and it may legitimately be. It could also be about redemption or self-discovery. The trigger warning doesn’t push those themes though, it just tells you to watch out for the negative plot points. Which ultimately doesn’t do the work itself any justice.
If we assume that these letter writers are earnest and honest with their pleas, that they do indeed have some trauma in their lives which has been or can be set off by the books they are assigned in class then I hope they are seeking help and that they are able to find healing. However, that being said, I think the onus is on them to protect themselves. Which is also, incidentally, part of growing up.
College isn’t high school. No one is going to be there to hold anyone’s hand. It can be assumed when studying literature at that level that work presented to you isn’t going to be Harry Potter. That terrible things are going to happen to people or people are going to do terrible things to other people. It is up to the reader to look into the text and decide if they can handle it.
Trigger warnings have no place in the classroom. They have no place in the real world.