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Warning: Dangerous ideas

Education

What does the word “trigger” mean to you? I’m old enough to think immediately of Roy Roger’s horse, and Smith & Wesson comes to my husband’s mind. But if you live on or near a secular college campus, you may think of the verb form first, especially in relation to a word, phrase, story, situation, or object that “triggers” unpleasant memories or a violent reaction. 

Have you ever been in a college classroom where discussion of a novel that includes a sexual assault causes a classmate to run screaming from the room? Or where the screening of a war movie causes a veteran to instinctively dive under his desk? That, along with disturbed or uncomfortable feelings, are what Trigger Warning (TW) advocates would like to avoid, hence the push for professors and instructors to include TW’s in their syllabi, lectures, class notes, and assigned reading. Warnings can stretch to include anything hurtful or objectionable: “This novel contains racist attitudes and derogatory terms” (Huckleberry Finn). “Warning: portrayals of anti-Semitism” (The Merchant of Venice). “This material includes sexist content” (War and Peace). Triggers aren’t always found in the written word. On the Wellesley campus, a super-realistic statue of a man in his underwear (titled “Sleepwalker”) gave students the heebie-jeebies, causing its removal to a safe, indoor installation.

Students are mostly driving the trigger-warning campaign, not leftist professors. But I confess to some skepticism: How many R-rated movies have they seen at this point in their lives? How many vile song lyrics have they heard? Are they really going to be traumatized by art and literature? Professors may feel a little miffed if they can’t deconstruct their favorite sexist or colonialist text because half the students have opted out of that day’s disturbing lecture—if so, the grown-ups have reaped the whirlwind after years of sowing doubt and suspicion. When words are equated with deeds, when “homophobia” amounts to murder and paternalism is tantamount to rape, it’s no wonder that students become hypersensitive to words. And it’s just possible they might also take advantage of a sanctioned opportunity to cut class. 

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Defenders of trigger warnings make the college campus sound like an asylum where the walking wounded are struggling to heal. What’s ironic is that “diversity” is Priority No. 1 at most colleges and universities today, yet students insist on being sheltered from diversity of thought and experience. Rather than TW’s scattered throughout the curriculum, there should be only one posted over the main gate: “Warning: This institution takes no responsibility for disturbing content. Education is about expanding minds, not swaddling them.”

Imagine the TW that would have to be issued for the Bible, if a copy could be found: “This book will explode your preconceptions, shred your self-esteem, and change you profoundly. That is precisely its purpose.” 

On the other hand, I like the sound of that one.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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