Professors and student advocates at some US universities have been debating whether classes which read certain types of literature should add a “trigger warning” to the class syllabus to warn students suffering from PTSD or who were victims of assault that a book might trigger an incident.
There’s been a lot of debate on this topic, with some going so far as to ridicule the idea, and on the other end of the spectrum propose trigger warnings for “heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of oppression”. As someone who is in principle in favor of the idea, I have been sitting out the debate, but today I decided to jump in and address one of my concerns that some have discarded out of hand.
Rebecca Schinsky, writing over at Book Riot, doesn’t see any reason why we should be worried about censorship:
Some of these pieces equate skipping a book that contains material that might trigger you with intellectual laziness and an unwillingness to be offended (that is: the writers of these pieces do not really understand what it is to have triggers). Others mount the hand-wringing slippery slope argument that trigger warnings will put us one step closer to book bannings (that is: they fail to acknowledge the significant differences between individual discretion and institutionalized, government-enforced censorship).
What Rebecca fails to acknowledge is that there are more types of censorship than government-enforced censorship. For example, there is the subtle commercial censorship system of the MPAA ratings. While that appears to be voluntary, any movie without an MPAA rating will have a difficult time getting into movie theaters. Similarly, any movie with an NC-17 rating simply won’t be shown.
And given that the MPAA’s ratings board has at times explicitly said that you need to change this, that, and the other in order to get a lower rating, this is a form of censorship:
And that’s not the only reason to be concerned. Here in the US we have a censorship issue on the local level.
It’s called book banning.
To name one example, it was onlythat an Idaho school district banned Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, over the protests of students, teachers, and parents.
The book makes reference to masturbation, contains profanity and has been viewed by many as anti-Christian. Some Meridian School District parents and students cautioned the board about banning the book, while others labeled it pornographic and racist.
What Rebecca fails to acknowledge is that if trigger warnings become more widespread, if it becomes common for books to be listed in catalogs with trigger warnings, then we will be handing the book banners another weapon in their fight to remove literature from libraries and schools. We might even see parents groups pressuring schools and libraries to not buy these books in the first place, simply because they come with a trigger warning. And if that happens, we are all going to be harmed.
So yes, when someone raises concerns of censorship, they’re not misstating the case, they’re not misunderstanding the situation, and they’re not, as Rebecca put it, wringing their hands.
In conclusion, when The Guardian pointed out that trigger warnings were “one small step from book banning”, they were not wrong:
Of course, life doesn’t come with a trigger warning, even if it should. And while a classroom conversation about emotionally fraught subjects would seem not only advisable but also just part of any decent teaching method, slapping a trigger warning on classic works of literature seems a short step away from book banning, a kind of censorship based on offenses to individual feelings.
And as the idea of trigger warnings moves forward, we need to keep the potential downsides in mind. The best way to avoid trigger warnings being misused is to not develop a system where they can be misused.
image by simonov