I’ve been avoiding this subject, hoping it would go away on its own before I’d feel compelled to write about it. Yet news, editorial, and opinion pieces on “trigger warnings” seem to be an almost daily affair on twitter and facebook. Of particular interest to me is a student resolution from UC Santa Barbara that urges faculty to put trigger warnings on their syllabi. This is to say, if an English professor was teaching Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, they would put a trigger warning on the syllabus stating that the book contained depictions of forced medical procedures as a warning to a students who have potentially suffered through a forced medical procedure of their own.
It’s clear from the New Republic’s article that there’s little in the way of consensus when discussing trigger warnings. The term itself has morphed and mutated as more and more people mobilize the phrase as applied to their own particular agenda. Amid the range of arguments it’s also obvious that many people think trigger warnings ought to be applied with the casual passing of a “spoiler alert.” These warnings would be, simply, an attempt to extend a measure of empathy to a given audience, and in doing so acknowledge that personal experiences cause us to view the world through different lenses. And to a certain extent, I think there’s value to that position.
For example, if I knew that a person was at ground zero during 9/11, I probably wouldn’t recommend they read The Running Man. While I am awestruck by the anti-capitalist symbolism that King mobilized in having Ben Richards crash a plane into a government building, I suspect somebody who saw that happen first hand isn’t going to be in a place where they want to revisit the memories through fiction. That said, my obligation to be a decent human being does not extend to conducting a statistically representative survey of my audience each time I recommend that particular – or any other – book.
To reiterate, I’ll never set out to ruin a person’s day with a recommendation they read Stephen King’s short story Boogieman if I know they dealt with neglectful parents as a child. However, in the absence of specific knowledge of an individual reader’s tastes, I will always recommend that people read Boogieman before bed, so that they can enjoy the full emotional resonance of the piece. Moreover, I wont’ tell you why it works as a horror piece, either. I’ll trust that you – generally speaking – have the wherewithal to know if you’re the type of person who should read Stephen King before bed.
This is where the trigger warning discussion gets stuck in a quagmire, as do most discussions that turn into a debate on what people owe each other in a civil society. And from where I sit, said obligation ends at the intersection of human decency and individual agency.
For example, a university instructor – and I say this having been a teaching assistant for seven years – doesn’t owe their students a specific set of warnings about individual books that might act as triggers. The syllabus itself serves as ample foreshadowing of what is to come in the course. Since the function of an English lit course is to analyze a text – wherein plot is generally unimportant to said discussion – a student should exercise their individual agency, which is no way compromised through the pursuit of post-secondary education, to see if there’s anything on the syllabus that would cause them severe psychological harm. As far as I’m concerned, a professor could teach an entire course on the literature of incest and rape and not need to offer specific warnings on the texts under review. The syllabus itself, the course title, and the conscious decision of a student to take said course more than meets a means test of basic human decency in the face of challenging works, and that is all our social contract demands – and ought to demand – of each other.
Outside of academia, I think the same test ought to apply. As a critic, I’m engaging in a dialogue with people, not an individual person. Therefore, I’m going to assume that a person is choosing of their own accord to read a book, watch a film, or play a game, and not being subjected to some sort of Ludovico technique. While the media in question might depict something that haunts an individual person, at no point does said media strip a person of the agency to stop what they are doing. And since my job as a critic is primarily in the analysis and evaluation of a work, it’s not my place to burn words on guessing how specific people might or might not respond to something; such intervention is the role of a parent or court-appointed guardian.
Barring the egregious, like the below scene of force feeding torture/murder from the video game Phantasmagoria, it’s not sensible to expect public discourse to contain disclaimers for everything that might set a person off. And ultimately, when it comes to media consumption, a person can always walk away.
Seriously, the above scene is graphic and gruesome. It illustrates my point about agency in the most visceral way possible. Don’t say you weren’t warned. I didn’t make you watch this. You chose to press play, or you chose to move on.
Either way, you were an active agent in the decision to watch – or not watch – this video. I met a basic standard of decency in warning you that this video is particularly hideous, and by those standards there’s no need to slap a trigger warning at the top of this post.