BOB GARFIELD: The segment you’re about to hear contains fleeting references to disturbing topics, such as ageism, rape, homophobia, mental illness and colonialism. If the acknowledgement of the existence of any of these issues upsets you, please turn down your radio. Okay? Consider that your trigger warning. Trigger warnings have been around on the internet for years, but recently they exploded onto such venues as The Huffington Post, the BBC and yes, even NPR. Recently, a group of students at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution imploring administrators to include mandatory trigger warnings in potentially offensive syllabi. It seems that increasingly what started as a courtesy to readers is morphing into compulsory emotional correctness.
Jenny Jarvie has recently written on the subject in the New Republic. She says she became interested when someone in an online forum said that any mention of pregnancy should be accompanied with a trigger warning to protect infertile women who may be offended by such a topic.
JENNY JARVIE: After that, it wasn’t just that people put warnings on posts about pregnancy, but actually women seemed to avoid the subject of births and babies altogether after that.
The requests for warnings changed the course of discussions.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me the history of the trigger warning.
JENNY JARVIE: It began in the 1990s on internet self-help forums to help readers who might suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories or panic attacks. But it’s definitely starting to play a growing role in public conversation. You know, we’ve had alerts being placed on more material, from statistics about hate crimes, to novels such as The Great Gatsby. So what began as a way of moderating internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill seems to be becoming a regular part of mainstream public discussion.
BOB GARFIELD: On the radio long before the nineties, we took care to warn people so that they could not only take care of their own sensibilities but their children’s, who might be in the room. But, in this case, the whole notion has mutated. How so?
JENNY JARVIE: What really grabbed me was the use of the academic setting. Students are demanding trigger warnings on class content and many lecturers are actually starting to oblige by issuing alerts on class syllabi and before presentations, even emailing notes ahead of class to warn students. To give an example, one student at Rutgers has argued that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which is a book that many 11th graders across America read, should have a trigger warning for suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence. At Oberlin College, lecturers are told to be aware of racism, classicism, sexism, heterosexism, same sex-ism, able-ism and other issues of privilege and oppression.
And officials there say Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart should carry a warning because it’s about colonialism and religious persecution. And I think in this context, it’s really hard to think of a book that wouldn’t carry a trigger warning.
BOB GARFIELD: At least one worth reading.
JENNY JARVIE: [LAUGHS] Yeah, exactly. You know, I was thinking, well, what did I read in college, you know? And Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I mean, I can’t think of a book that couldn’t potentially contain disturbing ideas or make someone uncomfortable. And, you know, and that’s the kind. Exploring the world of literature or ideas involves grappling with difficult subjects. That’s a given. And, you know, I think that slapping warnings on such a wide range of books reinforces the idea that, that words harm, and that undermines the principle of intellectual exploration.
You know, if you think of the word “trigger” it’s understanding words as a device that actives a mechanism or causes an effect. And I think that encourages a very rigid approach to language. In my mind, there’s no rational basis for applying trigger warnings because there’s no objective measure of why it’s a potential harm. Of course, words can be powerful and they can inspire very intense reactions, but we react to these words in different ways.
BOB GARFIELD: Speech and journalism and art, not only are they at risk of triggering emotional reactions, they’re intended to create emotional reactions. That’s what they’re for, are they not?
JENNY JARVIE: Yeah and, you know, when I went to college I wanted to grapple with difficult subjects. And I think it’s worth asking, why are we putting more warnings on words? Is it because words are more dangerous today? Is it because people today have endured more trauma? I’m skeptical of the idea that more students at Oberlin College are suffering more from colonialism and violence. And I think it really makes more sense to understand the trigger warning as part of a growing ritual of offense-taking. And the sad thing I think is that it doesn’t really help us negotiate our reactions. It seems to exacerbate conflict and make our conversations more fraught.
BOB GARFIELD: I wonder if there is any research that suggests that trigger warnings are effective at what they’re intending to do?
JENNY JARVIE: It is, obviously, a relatively new idea but I haven’t found any study that has shown that it has. My sense is that by putting all the emphasis on individual feeling and sort of structuring public life around these fragile personal sensitivities, there’s very little room for coming together to negotiate and work things out. Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy and of compassion but, in fact, I think they lead only to greater solipsism. They encourage us to impose our personal feelings on the public discussion and claim offense when something disturbs us.
BOB GARFIELD: Jenny, I, I must ask you this: Do you have any kind of separation anxiety that bedevils you?
JENNY JARVIE: Not that I know of.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay good because I have to warn you, I’m about to say goodbye.
Thank you very much for joining us.
JENNY JARVIE: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Jenny Jarvie is an Atlanta-based writer and reporter. Her article, “Trigger Happy” appears on the New Republic’s website.