Trigger-happy readers

I try not to be too censorious on this blog. When I find myself disagreeing vehemently with any stated position, I do try – on the grounds that nothing in all this unintelligible world can ever be so clear cut as to preclude some trace at least of ambivalence – to see if there is anything, anything at all, that may be said for the other side. But it’s not always easy. When I read, for instance, that students of literature, people who have actually chosen to study the subject at university, and who, one might reasonably assume, had some idea of what they were letting themselves in for, request that works with potentially distressing themes be marked with a “trigger warning” to protect their delicate sensitivities, I find myself thinking hard whether there is anything at all that can be said for their viewpoint.

I tell myself that, after all, sensitivities are indeed fragile things, and I would not care to have them belittled. Those who have been on the receiving end of, say, racist abuse (or worse), may indeed find it mortifying to read the depiction of racism in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Those who have had suicidal tendencies may indeed find it traumatic to enter the suicidal mind of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway. Some may counter that what you may read of made-up characters isn’t really that big a deal, as it’s all “made up”, but we who value literature know better: we acknowledge, as these students do, that it is a big deal, that literature does have the power not only to affect us, but to affect us deeply, to our very core – in some cases, indeed, to traumatise us. So let us grant the students this: in our age, when anything of cultural worth appears systematically to be sidelined away from the mainstream under the pretence that it’s not really that important, it is good to have some acknowledgement at least of the often overwhelming power that books may exert upon the reader’s mind. Better surely to acknowledge the potentially traumatic impact of Mrs Dalloway than to pretend it is but a trifle, a bauble, to while away a few lazy hours when we have nothing more important to do.

So far, I think we’re agreed, and on the same side. It’s the next bit that I have problems with. For the students in question are requesting that books that have the potential to cause distress be marked with what is known as a “trigger warning” – something to let potential readers know that the book may cause distress, so these potential readers may then, should they choose, avoid the book. It is when we come to the word “avoid” that I have a problem. Of course, as a general principle, one is under no obligation to put oneself through something that one finds uncomfortable, let alone distressing or traumatic. But should this general principle extend also to those who have, of their own free will, chosen to study literature? Did they really not understand what they were letting themselves in for?

For literature is the least abstract of all the arts. It is unambiguously about life. Life isn’t, admittedly, all distressing and traumatic, but much of it is, and so, literature has no option but to depict those things that may distress or cause trauma. Literature may also present ways of looking at the world that are disturbing, ideas that may challenge, provoke, and, indeed, traumatise. Perhaps the requested trigger warning should apply to the entire range of literature rather than to just a few books; perhaps all literature faculties in all universities should have engraved over the gate: “Abandon all comfort ye who enter here.” Comfort is for the heritage-style costume-drama adaptations of the classics, not the classics themselves.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – which, I guess, has been around long enough now to be regarded as a “classic” – may, we are told, “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more”. I am a bit unsure from the phrasing what exactly the book may “trigger”: thoughts? feelings? emotions? new ways of perceiving things? new perspectives? If so, are not these triggerings to be welcomed rather than avoided? Some of these triggerings may indeed be distressing, but in literature, as in life, distress is all too often the price one has to pay to experience the wonders on offer.

I also can’t help wondering: is Things Fall Apart likely to “trigger” only those who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide? (And more?) Can the rest of us not be triggered also by this book? Were we to be triggered only by what we have personally experienced, any individual book is unlikely to trigger much at all in any individual, given how minuscule any individual’s personal experience must be in comparison to the sum total of human experiences that literature encompasses. And I don’t know that it’s a good idea – at least for those who have voluntarily chosen to study literature – to avoid those books that trigger our mind into absorbing into our own perspectives the perspectives of others, distressing or even traumatic though they may be. The alternative is to close discourse, to close debate, to close, indeed, our very minds. We have the freedom as private citizens to close our minds, if that is what we really want to do, but perhaps that option should not be made available in institutions of learning.

So, while I am, up to a point, sympathetic with these students, I cannot say I am wholeheartedly in agreement. It’s not that I am asking them to “toughen up”: far from it: to experience literature, you have to hold on to your unhardened sensitivities. And I most certainly am not saying that the distress that literature can cause is but an affectation: it is very real indeed, far more so than is, perhaps, commonly recognised. What I am saying, I think, is that unless you are prepared to have your sensitivities battered, unless you are prepared to accept the distress and the trauma as a price to be paid for seeing the world in new and wondrous ways, then it’s best simply to steer clear of literature altogether. It makes as little sense for those who seek mere comfort to study literature as it does for those who are squeamish about handling animals to study veterinary science.

19 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on March 25, 2015 at 11:22 am

    To me this is just another aspect of the prolonged adolescence that is typical in Europe and America these days. I’m not saying that you have to have children in order to grow up – anyone who’s done work in the emergency services, social care, the armed services or who has dealt with an ill relative or difficult neighbourhood will have had plenty of opportunity to grow up, but I would argue that a lot of people can now delay unpleasant responsibilities, personal loss and difficult decisions for quite some time. One of the great things about literature is that to some small extent it can help you prepare for mental trauma in the real world through a process of imaginative empathy.
    Perhaps we need a new literary category, along with adult, young adult and child, perhaps we need ‘prolonged adolescent’. I know that’s not going to sell so maybe someone can come up with something more positive sounding: ‘Panglossian’ maybe, or perhaps ‘Correctly Realistic’.


    • I’m not even sure it’s prolonged adolescence.

      When I was growing up adolescence was about embracing the shocking and the iconoclastic.

      This is more like skipping the boundary-testing phase and jumping straight from childhood to pearl-clutching old age.


      • Yes, I too, as an adolescent, sought out the shocking and the iconoclastic, but i do wonder if things have changed since then. At the risk of droning on about “kids nowadays”, when I see kids gathering in droves to see the latest comic-hero special=effects action spectacular, I can’t help wondering whether the iconoclastic and the shocking are still embraced to the extent they used to be. Maybe they are – maybe I am misjudging: its easy to be dyspeptic on these matters as one gets older.

        i do take your point, though. it just seems to me, though, that we do have, if not an “extended adolescence”, at least an “extended childhood”.

        Welcome to this blog, by the way!

  2. Posted by Martin on March 25, 2015 at 11:55 am

    Interesting stuff! I volunteer as a tutor in a rehab teaching basic skills and occasionally literature and creative writing for ‘residents’. On the whole, I find this a fascinating and rewarding experience. What frustrations I experience are almost entirely from the management and the culture of the organisation I am working for. Recently. for example I took in a copy of Blood River by Tim Butcher to leave for a resident for whom I judged it suitable as a step up from the true crime diet on which he had been feeding himself. A junior administarator informed me that she would need to have the book checked before passing it on. When I queried this, I was told that the men weren’t allowed books that were unsuitable by virtue of their subject matter. Violent themes were, for example, banned. A very few of the men have convictions for violence, but generally, most are, once off their particular poison, delightful to work with, and pretty stable mentally. I suppose that I as a literature specialist was miffed that my judgment about what was suitable was possibly to be overturned by an ideology concerned to censor my student’s experience.


  3. Posted by Mark on March 25, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    Oh, for pity’s sake. I hadn’t heard about this, and had to look up the reports. I read the reports in The Guardian and then read the comments below the line, which were the usual mixture of the sensible and the raving mad. Then I found myself reading other reports with a mixture of growing amusement and fury. Before Google had even done its nefarious work, and directed me to the right places, I had guessed that this would be, originally, a phenomenon of the U.S. education system. I had also guessed that this would be an initiative led by so-called liberals.

    At this risk of a hair-trigger response (see what I did there), trigger warnings and the people that demand them are worthy of nothing but scorn. You say you try not to be too censorious on your blog, Himadri, and that you can sympathise with these students up to point. I admire your generosity, but I don’t share it. Everyone has upsetting experiences in their lives – everyone! They come in all shapes and sizes, and literature encompasses every aspect of life. The logic of trigger warnings would therefore appear to be that every book needs to list every upsetting trigger in order to warn every potential reader. Soon the lists of warnings will become works in their own right.

    Ah, but note I said that this would “appear” to be the logic. In truth there is a more subtle agenda at work. My quick read around the subject has turned up comments to the effect that people who disdain trigger warnings represent the “privileged” elite who have not had to deal with the same problems as the “marginalised”: the elite have not had to suffer racism, homophobia, prejudice against those with mental disorders, physical disabilities and so on. This is where the idiocy of a certain kind of pro-censorship “liberal” thinking comes in. Why, in fact, “privilege” these forms of suffering? (I suppose I had better make it clear here that, of course, as a good more-or-less-liberal myself, I deplore bigotry and intolerance in all forms). Experience of racism – undoubtedly traumatic. Experience of homophobia – undoubtedly traumatic. What about experience of bereavement, of a serious car accident, of a terrible house fire, redundancy, rejection by someone you love? Are we to have trigger warnings for all these things too (with all the madness that would entail)? Or will it be warnings for the usual things that especially offend liberals and their particular political sensibilities? Racism, colonialism, misogyny, homophobia, etc.

    This lunacy would/will soon spiral out of control. And it will become a way for people of both a liberal and a conservative persuasion to start policing literature. Imagine the effect on the writer with one eye on creativity and one eye on sales. Disastrous!

    Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

    WARNING. This novel contains scenes of:

    Axe Murder.
    Delirium and mental disturbance.
    Sexual harassment.
    Traumatic family relations.
    AND SPIRITUAL SUFFERING (but who gives a damn about that, right?)


  4. I think warnings would increase sales–mainly because people would think that they knew what the good stuff was going in. Crime and Punishment does have (implied) sex, substance abuse, and a double axe murder. It’s basically the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, right? (Only with a male protagonist and Russian Orthodoxy.)


    • Back in the Eighties Channel 4 did a season of ‘challenging’ movies which had a bright red triangle permanently displayed in the top red corner as a ‘warning’ to the sensitive.

      In reality the films were pretty tame but the red triangle initially boosted the audience figures – until the audience cottoned on to the fact they were likely to be disappointed.


      • Ah yes – I remember those red triangles well. I wasted many hours, i remember, watching forgettable films in the hope of catching something that was … er … challenging. yes, let’s say “challenging”.

        But as you say, the films were very tame indeed. Oh well! – I was young then!

  5. Perhaps that article should have come with a ‘trigger warning’, Himadri; because it definitely makes me feel like punching something. And yes, I WOULD tell such people to ‘toughen up’.

    Alan’s right: it’s just more of this nonsense where supposed grown ups don’t feel completely mortified on going around with Society’s perpetual soother in their mouths, but actually feel on the contrary that they are ENTITLED to be protected from every perceived slight.

    Good God, no wonder we have so cravenly submitted to being controlled by nanny-states.

    You know, I’m too irritated to write more. I’m off for a pint! [Better put up a trigger warning for alcoholics who might be reading.]


  6. “unsure from the phrasing what exactly the book may “trigger”” – this is pretty specific, actually. It comes out of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The idea is that symptoms of PTSD may be “triggered” by an encounter with whatever caused the original trauma.

    So, not “thoughts,” no, no one is worried that there will be any of those. Ha ha ha! Good one, Himadri.

    Although Mark is in some sense right that trigger warnings are a product of the US education system, it is important to know that this particular bad idea was not created by education bureaucrats or ed school theorists, but by students and activists. Educators mostly hate it as it directly challenges their autonomy in the classroom.


    • Posted by Mark on March 25, 2015 at 1:57 pm

      That’s right, Tom – it did come from students originally. I should have made that clear. It only makes this ghastly phenomenon worse in my view. Students campaigning for this codswallop. I remember when students campaigned for altogether worthier causes, and in huge numbers.


    • The triviality of the problem seems to be part of its appeal. Pure activism with no stakes. Perfect for displays of virtue and status.


      • Posted by Mark on March 25, 2015 at 6:28 pm

        This is what Jill Filipovic wrote in The Guardian last year about trigger warnings. It accords precisely with what you say, Tom, about displays of virtue and status (and also, to a degree, with my rant above against a certain type of illiberal liberal):

        “But generalized trigger warnings aren’t so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism: they’re a low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues. Even better is demanding a trigger warning – that identifies you as even more aware, even more feminist, even more solicitous than the person who failed to adequately provide such a warning.”

        I don’t think it’s necessary to confine this observation merely to “performative feminism”, there are other political positions that could be slotted in here, but she makes an excellent point nonetheless.

  7. I’ve read the articles on this and I really think that the above comments about prolonged adolescence are right but I also believe that it’s an attempt to control people. I guess these people are advocating a world like in Fahrenheit 451 where we’re only allowed to think “happy thoughts” that don’t cause division. Of course all the books needed to be burned….


  8. What a terrible, terrible idea. I take that back; it does not deserve to be called an idea.

    What of the other (far more likely) possibilities when one opens a book? That one can empathize with, identify with, find solace in characters going through “distressing” situations one might be going through oneself, find structuring of life in the world a novel has created. And what of educators (presumably their fundamental role) using such situations as teaching moments, building discussions around them? I go back to Susan Sontag putting on Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the siege. People actually risked their lives just to go to the play (far from the “pure activism with no stakes” that Tom so perfectly describes). When asked if she thought that was appropriate, Sontag replied, “In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art.”


  9. Wow! I’m away from the blog for just one day, and look what happens! Thanks, everyone, for your inputs.

    Since you are all making similar, or at least related, points, it would perhaps be best if I were to answer you all in the same response. That would save me repeating myself.
    First of all, thanks to Tom for informing me that what is “triggered” are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This wasn’t clear – at least not to me – from the report I had linked to. (And yes – how stupid of me to imagine that thoughts are involved in any of this!)

    Secondly, I wasn’t just being polite when I said that sensitivities are fragile things, and shouldn’t be belittled. It is certainly true, as Mark says, that everyone has certain things they are particularly sensitive about, and that it would be unrealistic trying to account for them all. But it is equally true that some sensitivities are more raw than others. A victim of childhood abuse, say, or of violent rape, may well be particularly sensitive to these particular matters, and I don’t think any of us would wish to belittle that. The question we are focussing on, however, is to what extent, if any, such things should be taken into account in the teaching of literature. And while we all appear to have quite strong views on that – and all on much the same side – it’s perhaps no bad idea to subject those views to some scrutiny. Since Mark mentioned Crime and Punishment, let us use that as an example. Let us hypothesise that I am a teacher of Russian literature at a university, and that one of my students had, as a small child, seen her mother brutally murdered. Would I really have no second thoughts at all about insisting that this student read Crime and Punishment? This is not to say, of course, that she shouldn’t; and indeed, as Scott says, this student may indeed feel “strengthened and consoled by having [her] sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art”. But I would be insensitive indeed not to consider the possibility that reading this novel may have on this student a harmful psychological effect.

    This is, admittedly, a very extreme hypothesis, and, since I am no psychologist, I am not qualified to suggest in this case a solution. But I present it to demonstrate that amidst all the posturing and the illiberal urges to censor that we have noted, there may be a few nuggets here that are perhaps not entirely unworthy of consideration.

    But in general, of course, I agree that this is, as Scott says, a terrible, terrible idea. Since putting up the post above, a friend of mine asked me how widespread this is. If this is just a single isolated bunch of students at a single university, then I am in danger of making a mountain out of a molehill, and becoming outraged over nothing much in particular. The problem is that I am fairly convinced that far from being an isolated incident, this is very typical of the illiberal ethos of many universities these days, in which, far from creating an atmosphere where students may have their assumptions challenged and where they may enter into debate and free intellectual enquiry, every effort is made to protect (it is said) students’ sensitivities, to silence any voice likely to disturb their peace of mind or their equanimity, and to create what is termed a “safe place”. I did not go into all that in my post as I try generally to keep away from political matters this blog, and because I was worried my post would end up lacking focus; but this thoughtful piece by Nick Cohen, as well as being an eloquent polemic, provides what seems to me an accurate summary of the state of affairs on this matter. I really don’t think Nick Cohen is overstating the case: I have read various articles and blog posts on this matter from academics and student representatives who support the silencing, and the creation of a “safe place” where there students aren’t “threatened” with ideas: the illiberalism of this is, I’m sorry to say, all too real. (I won’t litter this comment with links: these pieces are all too easy to find.) The silencing of voices to protect (allegedly) students’ sensitivities seems to me a very serious issue, and, in that context, this particular matter that I focus on in my post seems symptomatic of a more general malaise.

    In addition, another friend of mine, working in academia, tells me that trigger warnings have already been prescribed in some universities for inclusion in syllabi — which ostensibly would mean that novels, if part of a given syllabus, may already have been included in trigger warnings. No, I am afraid we cannot just laugh this off as a few students being a bit silly.

    For the proposal to provide “trigger warning” is indeed silencing: it cannot be seen in any other way. For what is the warning for if not to discourage students from reading the book for fear their sensitivities may be hurt? And, keeping my focus purely on the teaching of literature for the moment, this is not in any way an acceptable way to approach literature. If I have chosen to be an investigating police officer, I cannot choose not to view the bloodied corpse because it would be too distressing for me: this is the job I have voluntarily let myself in for. Similarly, those who have voluntarily chosen to study literature cannot have the choice either not to have to face certain things that they may find disturbing.

    But it’s worth questioning the stated intent for these “trigger warnings”. Is it really to protect sensibilities? It’s hard not to agree with Jill Filipovic, as quoted by Mark above:
    “But generalized trigger warnings aren’t so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism: they’re a low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues. Even better is demanding a trigger warning – that identifies you as even more aware, even more feminist, even more solicitous than the person who failed to adequately provide such a warning.”

    For the list of things that could “trigger” seems an odd list indeed: “racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more”. Violence, suicide … yes, perhaps, but colonialism? Really? I am of a colonised people myself, and I can’t say it has even occurred to me that reading about colonialism, no matter what the viewpoint of the author, could cause me such mental distress that I would need to be warned about it. It is difficult to see this as anything more than mere posturing to identify oneself, as Jill Filipovic put it, “even more aware … even more solicitous than the person who failed to adequately provide such a warning”.

    I agree with Alan that we seem to be in an age of prolonged adolescence. There is evidence a-plenty of this: films that are essentially big-budget children’s films that grown-ups flock to see; books that are essentially children’s books that grown-ups tend to read (and regularly explode with fury if it is ever suggested that there may be something not quite right about a grown-up’s reading consisting primarily of children’s books). If there is a preference amongst adults for children’s books and children’s films over books and films that are more grown-up and of a more challenging nature, then it is not too surprising that so many books studied in literature courses should prove so unpalatable. Related to this is SharonPaula’s point that, as in Fahrenheit 451, we are increasingly determined only to think “happy thoughts”. (I don’t think this determination is imposed from above, because, as Tom points out, the idea has come from below – from the students rather than from academics or administrators.) It is, essentially, it seems to me, a desire to infantilise literature, in much the same way as mainstream cinema has already been infantilised.

    Well, at least we all seem broadly in agreement. The next time I try to be controversial, I think I’ll write something about grown-ups primarily reading children’s books as an aspect of prolonged adolescence and of intellectual immaturity. If that doesn’t pull a ton of bricks on my head, nothing will!


  10. Reblogged this on A Celebration of Reading and commented:
    This fits right in with my own thoughts on this subject. What should we do, provide these delicate literature students with a cork-lined carrel and smelling salts?


    • I think we should engage in debate, making our points in a reasoned manner. Whether that will work or not, I don’t know – but I don’t see what else we can do! For this is not just an isolated bunch of students being a bit silly: I may be wrong, but I strongly getthe impression that this is part of a much wider trend, and that protecting students’ individual sensibilities is taking precedence over exposure to ideas and modes of thought that they may find uncomfortable. I think we need, above all, to argue against the unarged assumption that education and study should be confortable.


  11. […] Fascists are not at work here.  The sky is not falling.  By the way, may I recommend my friend Himadri Chatterjee‘s response to an earlier call for trigger warnings.  It is along the same lines as Coyne, […]


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