Trigger warnings in lit courses

The latest thing I’m seeing coming up a lot on twitter is trigger warnings — not in fandom, this time, but in literature courses. Here‘s an article in The New York Times about it; I’ll wait.

The thing is, trigger warnings are pretty widely accepted in fandom. Not completely, because there are various arguments against them, like the fact that giving a trigger warning takes away from the intended emotional impact and any surprise factor. That’s fair enough, and it’s why fanfic archives like AO3 have a “choose not to use warnings” option. People then are aware going into it that it could be anything, and perhaps the fact that the author chose not to use warnings is enough of a warning in itself. Certainly, you can’t then blame the author that they didn’t warn you: they told you they wouldn’t.

The idea of trigger warnings, though, is to help protect people from things they’re not in a safe place to read. An abuse victim can avoid stories about abuse that might take them back into the part of their mind where they were so badly hurt; a rape victim can avoid being taken back to memories of that rape, etc. With PTSD, certain triggers can make you have flashbacks, panic attacks, maybe even lead you to hurt yourself — or others.

A lot of arguments against using trigger warnings in lit courses and other serious settings revolve around censorship, narrowing the discussion, etc. I think it depends on what you think trigger warnings are for. For me, in that context, they’d be saying, “We’re giving you advance warning that you need to be in a safe space to read this. Don’t try to cram it in at the library before class. Give yourself time, and space, and kind people around you. It’s still required reading, but we’re giving you a chance to make yourself as safe as possible.” And if you then make the choice not to read it, the impact on your grade is your responsibility (unless you can prove extenuating circumstances through existing methods).

It’s not actually a good idea to use trigger warnings to avoid stuff all the time. Avoiding something increases your fear of it. Take it from the person with GAD. You know, I actually have an appropriate bookish situation to bring up here: in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged stirs up an awful dark power which chases him, which intrudes into his life in nightmares and shadows, even when he thinks he’s safe. And as long as he runs from it, it gains in power. When he finally turns to chase it in turn, to hunt it, he is at last able to defeat it.

That’s where I am with my anxiety, with the aftermath of bullying and all sorts of attached problems I don’t want to talk about (and let’s avoid discussion of the specifics of my personal issues). I’m chasing it. I like to think I’m somewhere out on that impossible shore, like Ged, closing on my fear and about to name it with my own name and make it part of me, a part of my strength, not something which oppresses me. It helps. This isn’t the only narrative there is, and maybe some people will never be strong enough to turn and face their fears, and that’s not their fault. The least we can do is give everyone the opportunity to take care of themselves, though.

It’s difficult to make a hard and fast rule. Some triggers are just not common — I’m terrified of insects and parasites, for example — and it’s hard to figure out where the line is between ‘this is offensive’, ‘this may cause harm’ and ‘this isn’t a comfortable read’. But to my mind, warnings for basic triggers like abuse, violence, rape and gore would help protect people and actually foster debate, not stifle it. If you give people the tools to protect themselves, they will know they’re safe engaging with the material you’ve set, rather than holding back out of fear.

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2 thoughts on “Trigger warnings in lit courses

  1. Exactly. Just knowing that I will have to be careful with a work (even if I’m unsure what the trigger could possibly be) helps me to prepare a good headspace to read and interact with the work.

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