Protecting us from ourselves is infantilizing us, and it's limiting intellectual debate.
I grew up in a house packed with books and no rules about which ones I could look at.
Maybe ironically, my mom was pretty protective about a lot of other stuff, but even if I was only supposed to go so far on my bike, the unspoken policy on books and ideas was one of endless horizons. I dove in with no red tape suggesting that I might be disturbed or experience discomfort, no one looking over my shoulder to make sure I'd be OK every time a book shocked or shook me.
So, I'm putting it lightly when I say I'm anti trigger warning.
Last week, University of Chicago Dean of Students, John Ellison, started an online firestorm when he sent a letter to students that the campus did not condone trigger warnings or safe spaces, wherein students are warned about the plot points or content of a novel in case the content may trigger panic or anxiety over past traumas.
"We do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,'" Ellison wrote. "We do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."
Trigger warnings on their face seem like kind consideration: We don't want you to hurt, and/or know you may have been hurt in the past, so we'll remove the possible catalysts for you to hurt again.
But ultimately, they strike me as insidious. Trigger warnings are little more than gilded censorship.
Protecting us from ourselves is infantilizing us, and it's limiting intellectual debate. It's teaching students that if something is upsetting or at odds with our experience and beliefs, they can and maybe should walk away.
But what do we lose in trying to protect ourselves?
I would never trivialize the experience or pain of someone who's experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder due to rape, abuse or past exposure to violence, and as a white female aware of her privilege, I can't speak accurately on what it's like to endure the harmful effects of racism or hate speech.
But I will say I don't think we can heal from those things, or grow, or teach others, inside a bubble.
Have you ever had your heart broken and felt crushing despondence? I don't think you can handle Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Vilette, The Remains of the Day — eh, god, half the Western canon maybe. Ever wallowed in grief over the death of a loved one and swore you never want to feel that way again? Don't read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, probably stay away from Hemingway, Vonnegut, and most poets.
I could go on.
Are you thinking, wait, that's dumb? Or, hey, sometimes things that bring my pain right up to the surface are exactly what I need and a reminder that I'm not numb, that I am alive and sometimes it sucks but I can handle it, and it's part of the human experience? My experience.
Yeah, I think that, too.
Art, and the people who make it, don't make you the victim. Joining in a debate or a conversation around something troubling doesn't make you a victim. Anything you've suffered or were victim to, it didn't happen at the hands of ideas.
Most of the horrible stuff you've endured has happened because of people, and the occasional act of nature. And when you remove yourself from reading about it or thinking about it — confronting it — you make yourself a victim all over again, in a sense.
And while despair and trauma, despondence and depression are real things not to be trivialized, I don't want anyone to protect me from myself, or from books and art and ideas, all of which have — even when they've push me to uncomfortable places in my own mind and heart — brought me deep comfort.
To me, when universities talk about "safe spaces," those spaces should be ones that allow and encourage all these hard conversations to take place, with all sides represented.
So believe me when I say I'm not sitting comfortably here far away from feelings. I've experienced loss, pain and heartbreak, too. And I'd never wish trauma on anyone, but I would like to say that we can always shut a book if it's too much. We can always avert our eyes from a piece of art. We can always step away from a debate if we really have to without having our hand held as we retreat to an appointed space.
Humans are nothing if not resilient. Let's not discourage ourselves from finding the full measure of our reserves.
For the people who think they need a spelled-out trigger warming, I say this: You may be hurt, but you are smart and strong. Do your homework. You can easily assess the subject matter of a book from reading a blurb, or a precursory web search. If you do that, and you're unnerved about being triggered, make your case. But make it your case, not a blanket warning to potentially deter many from experiencing the work.
You don't need a trigger warning. Don't ask to be treated like a helpless child because you're not, and as you hopefully heal from your trauma, gradually exposing yourself to what now look like potential triggers is only going to help you. You may even be inspired to tell your story or create your own art, as many a damaged person has done, and that will help you, too.
By suggesting something has potential to harm someone, trigger warnings do a disservice to everyone. How many people will no longer want to read Lolita if they know it contains rape? Should The Great Gatsby, a favorite of many, be reduced to a tale featuring misogyny so that all women who've ever felt cut down stay away from it?
Trigger warnings are terrifying to me because we can reduce any great work of art to something that cause us pain or discomfort, something to be feared instead of felt.
And the fact is, no matter how thorough we are in pulling the alarm on all potential triggers, we don't know what will trigger us. You could stay away from all the sad books in the world and still be brought to your knees by the smell of bread baking if it reminds you of some awful event.
Life itself can be a trigger. I would never urge you away from reading something that may be upsetting because, quite honestly, living in the world may be upsetting — is upsetting — but I think it's worth sticking around.
The more we give credence to things that we think are for our own good, the more we learn to live in fear of everything, even things that might actually be good for us.
Complete safety is an illusion, and it's impossible. The only way to get comfortable in this uncomfortable world is to do your best to open yourself to every last morsel of experience and every idea you can. Don't let anyone warn you away from it.