May 22, 2014

Trigger warnings and the closing of the western mind

Filed under: Books, Liberty, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:49

Tiffany Jenkins says that the rising demand for trigger warnings are like a loaded gun pointed at the head of literature:

In Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, the Iranian author and professor Azar Nafisi recalls how, when living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, she secretly brought together seven female students in her living room every Thursday morning so they could read and discuss forbidden classic works of Western literature. These books were considered ‘anti-revolutionary’ and ‘morally harmful’ by the Iranian authorities. Nafisi and the girls put themselves at risk so they could enter the worlds created by writers that included Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, Jane Austen and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Nafisi’s passion for literature and her defiance of the authorities is inspiring, as is the determination of the girls who attended her class, but Reading Lolita in Tehran is an upsetting read. Books – ideas – are powerful, of course, and deal with difficult and sometimes questionable ideas, but they are not so powerful that we should be prevented from studying them, and it makes me angry to think that those wonderful, if tragic and complicated, worlds of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze, are not available to everyone in many parts of the world. All because those books are considered immoral, and because women, especially, are deemed too susceptible to negative influences.


One thing a novel never is is simple. That’s why we read them, because they are challenging and thoughtful. You don’t read The Great Gatsby or any other book to learn about whether it is good or bad to betray your husband, or long after a lost love, or make loads or money, or to hit your mistress, or commit suicide, you read to explore how complicated, and human, these desires, wishes and acts are. And there is no such thing as the ‘last word’ when it comes to a novel. The ongoing conversation between readers and writers shouldn’t be curtailed, or deemed too difficult a task for us. What we know or think is never complete or final.

As someone who has taught many students, I can say that most lecturers have faith in their students and know how to help students with issues navigate difficult material. What the students calling for trigger warnings fail to realise is that these are issues that will never be addressed by a warning sticker.

This is a generation of students, it would seem, that does not want university to be a place of free thought, of experimentation, and of reading the best that has been known and thought. This is a generation that sees knowledge as dangerous and themselves as incapable of dealing with it, who seem to want to erase from the world any written words that address complexity, difficulty, nastiness, or the depth of human feeling. These students don’t want to be disturbed, stretched or challenged, and nor do they want others to be. It is a generation that just wants to be sheltered from the world, from one another and even themselves. These are students who, if they are not careful, will find that members of their classes are forced to organise private reading groups in their own homes in order to experience a world of literature that is being denied to them.


  1. The trigger warning movement has been one of those issues that I’ve never really paid much attention to. I first heard of it when watching Anita Sarkeesian’s Youtube stuff about women in video games.

    The articles you’ve posted lately about the movement into universities have been really interesting. And I tend to agree that it seems to be a lot of fuss over nothing, and potentially another way to stifle free speech and discourse.

    However, I also had an experience recently that forced me rather abruptly to see it from the other side.

    One of my friends at school is a refugee from Iran (a weird parallel with the women mentioned at the top of this article. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a chance to experience western culture there). He’s a religious minority and was discriminated against by the government since his birth. This took many different forms, but to cut a long story short this is a guy who’s very sensitive to abuses of power.

    In our Psych101 class last week, we started looking at social psychology. Our prof wanted to make sure she grabbed everyone’s attention, so she started by turning off the lights and showing us a 20 minute BBC documentary on the Stanford Prison Experiment. My friend didn’t last 5 minutes. I’ve never seen anyone so totally disturbed by something on a TV screen. Not just moved to tears, but actually physically ill.

    Just watching the archival footage of the “guards” and “prisoners” took him straight back to Iran watching his family members being taken away, suffering horrible abuse at the hands of the regime.

    He couldn’t go back to the lecture.

    Now, I don’t know if this was something that could ever have been avoided, even with a trigger warning in place since this trigger was outside the normal sexual/violence issues that most people associate with trigger warnings. Maybe introducing the concepts orally first and just letting us know what to expect would have been a better plan.

    But, for the first time, I’ve seen the kind of effect that unexpected exposure to “triggering” images can have on someone I can’t just write off.

    Getting back to the article, I do find it weirder that people want trigger warnings in books. I always saw trigger warnings as being applicable to video. Not just because the stimulus is so much stronger, but because anyone can put down a book at any time and take a breather (as opposed to having to run out of a movie theatre or lecture room). But, maybe one day I’ll have an experience that makes me a little more sympathetic to that too.

    Comment by Liam — May 23, 2014 @ 07:22

  2. I sympathize with your classmate’s discomfort with the video, but it sounds like he handled it the right way — by leaving. Far too many people on the “trigger warning” bandwagon would instead have demanded that the disturbing presentation be stopped so that nobody would see it. Making reasonable accommodations is fine: that’s not a new or particularly controversial thing, and it’s done at the individual level. Mandated trigger warnings, on the other hand, would be applied to everyone … and would almost certainly require some sort of bureaucracy to manage the mandate.

    Think of a new kind of human rights “court” that would dictate to professors and lecturers exactly what they could and could not discuss in class or assign as reading. And think of who’d be volunteering to be on this new board of censors…

    Comment by Nicholas — May 23, 2014 @ 07:31

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