Trigger Warning!

04.28.14

Warning: This Column Will Offend You

Should students be warned that reading The Great Gatsby might "trigger" a past trauma? The campus censors think so. But they are only protecting your feelings.

It’s with a twinge of nostalgia that I recall all those incredulous faces. Sometime in the 1990s, I suggested to a group of college friends that it wasn’t exactly right to brand Ian Fleming a hopeless sexist (his deeply held dislike of America, all agreed, was a more agreeable phobia).

This note of dissidence was interrupted by the sound of jaws shattering as they hit the floor, a crescendo of denunciations, and a few dramatic walkouts. One of those who remained said, with a jabbing finger, that mine was the argument of someone “unaware of his gender privilege.”

It was almost inevitable, regardless of one’s personal politics, to find oneself—with bowed head, like an undergraduate Rubashov—accused of trespassing some previously unknown frontier of offense. I would soon learn never to object to the charge of privilege: it’s a phantom, something one possesses and abuses without knowing it. And like denying your alcoholism, a denial doubles as an acknowledgement that you’re afflicted with the disease.

Floating in the fog of privilege, all sorts of voguish developments in language control bypassed me. But through the daily horror of Twitter, where these concepts are released into the non-academic world, I’ve been exposed to all the latest phrases doubling as argument, like the various prefixes affixed to “shaming” and “‘splaining” (the latter so rendered, I assumed, in homage to Desi Arnaz, before realizing this was a vulgar indulgence of Cuban stereotypes).  

“Shaming” and “‘splaining” are fluidly defined verbs, though it seems an admonition to people with my biography (boring white guys) that they engage in conversation about race or gender in particular ways, with particular conclusions—and only when speaking to particular people. Thus, there is the scourge of “slut shaming,” which one can be accused of, for instance, when questioning whether the so-called Duke porn star is indeed “liberated” when shooting videos for defaceherface.com.

And there’s the promiscuous use of “mansplaining,” defined by a fusty man at The New York Times as a condescending chappie “compelled to explain or give an opinion about everything — especially to a woman.” This midwived the now ubiquitous "whitesplaining,” best demonstrated in this Atlantic.com polemic upbraiding a member of the indie band The Black Lips for having opinions about—whitesplaining—hip-hop music. Not in a racist way, mind you. It’s just none of his cultural business.

These faddish portmanteaus suffer from overuse, but one can at least see the point: They are polemical words, more pointed and ideological than what we used to call know-it-all-ism and sexist condescension.

Being so behind the times, I only just discovered the neutron bomb of censoriousness masquerading as concern: the “trigger warning.” This is, roughly, a label that would accompany an article, film, song, book, or piece of art warning potential viewers that the content might make them upset or uncomfortable (often the point of art) and thus trigger memories of a traumatic event. The examples of this latest explosion of hypersensitivity are too numerous to recount, but a few should suffice.

According to The Wire, a University of North Carolina student named Liz Hawryluk “asked the DJ at a local haunt, Fitzgerald’s Irish Pub, to stop playing Robin’s [sic]  Thicke ‘Blurred Lines,’ because it ‘triggers’ victims of sexual assault.” The bar panicked (they are anti-sexual assault, after all) and fired him. Unfortunately the song hasn’t yet been banned by presidential fiat, so the risk of trauma reignition remains.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, the student senate, which appears to be staffed by the only people in the solar system dumber than actual senators, passed a resolution to “begin the process of instituting mandatory ‘trigger warnings’ on class syllabi,” flagging books that could make students feel uncomfortable. One student arguing in favor of the measure commented, with all the grace and wit of Soviet bureaucrat, “I’ve been in this kind of situation before — it sucks; we should pass it.”

The poison is spreading, with even less intelligent students across the country demanding their schools take action. At Rutgers, an opinion piece in the student newspaper demanded that “trigger warnings” be affixed to various great works of literature, fearing the tender souls sleeping through English classes might confront difficult social issues:

For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s critically acclaimed novel, The Great Gatsby, possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence. Virginia Woolf’s famous cerebral narrative, Mrs. Dalloway, paints a disturbing narrative that examines the suicidal inclinations and post-traumatic experiences of an English war veteran. And Junot Diaz’s critically acclaimed work, This is How You Lose Her, observes domestic violence and misogynistic culture in disturbing first-person narrations.

And this stuff isn't dribbling only out of the mouths of undergraduates. Oberlin College codified the trigger warning into its teacher guide, telling professors to “avoid” triggers in their classrooms. “Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma,” faculty are told. “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”  

The idea was shelved last week, pending further debate. Shielding students from the cissexism of the Western canon was too silly even for Oberlin.

I have often argued with conservative friends that the final ledger on political correctness wasn’t all negative. The casual racism once found in polite company, while certainly not eradicated, is almost unthinkable today. But my unilateral declaration of an end to the kulturkampf was depressingly naive. Because language cops are like pornographers: The stuff that was once seen as extreme has become quotidian, demanding that it be replaced with something even more extreme and confusing.

All of this is the unsurprising result of teaching soft-headed but well-intentioned college students that if we can control language, we can control behavior. But these handy phrases-as-argument both skirt and ultimately suffocate real debate, often demanding feelings be valued above reality (This recent Huffington Post headline says it all: “Anti-Vaccine Mom Feels Bullied”).

If only today’s cultural commissars were around when, with extreme privilege, I engaged in the campus ideological struggle. I could have dispensed with the pointless argument over James Bond’s shabby treatment of women and simply conceded that the addition of a trigger warning to Goldfinger would keep the film in its original form while also warding off the easily offended:

"Pussy Galore is an outmoded character that belongs to the dark ages of Anglo-American sexism. If this might cause you sleepless nights, may we recommend a Ken Loach film instead?"