Trigger warnings are disclaimers that are attached to literature or other content to alert students to potentially traumatic subject matter the literature may contain. The most common types of warnings to date have reportedly involved rape, sexual abuse and mental illness.
Until recently, the warnings were mostly on feminist-oriented Internet message boards and blogs, but now they've gravitated to some of our universities, many of which never found a kooky idea they didn't embrace.
In addition to expanding their jurisdictional scope, they have also increased in their range of forbidden topics. In many venues, trigger warnings now apply to all kinds of isms -- "racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression," as exemplified by an Oberlin College document concerning triggers.
What is the rationale for warning readers that they might encounter these isms in the flagged literature? Well, according to the Oberlin document, "a trigger is something that recalls a traumatic event to an individual. Reactions to triggers can take many different forms; individuals may feel any range of emotion during and after a trigger. Experiencing a trigger will almost always disrupt a student's learning and may make some students feel unsafe in (the) classroom."
Are we to assume that every piece of writing that in some way touches on the subject of racism, for example, will produce an adverse reaction for any reader who has ever experienced any type of racism at any level? Will all writings that describe or depict some form of sexism or perceived sexism spark a traumatic memory for those who have ever been slighted by this ism?
So what if literature causes readers to feel emotions? Isn't that one of its purposes? Even if certain writings evoke certain negative emotions, does it necessarily follow that they "will almost always disrupt a student's learning and may make some students feel unsafe in (the) classroom"?
Isn't it just as likely that emotions spawned by some of these isms will enhance a student's learning? Don't people sometimes learn how not to behave by pointing to examples, real or fictional, of unacceptable behavior? Abraham Lincoln, according to legend, thought Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" did a great deal to educate people to the horrors of slavery and racism. (Even if it's apocryphal, you get the point.)
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