THR Web Features   /   July 15, 2014

Trigger Alert

Read at your own risk.

Leann Davis Alspaugh

( THR illustration.)

I liked it better when trigger was the name of a horse. As almost everyone knows, when Roy Rogers’s trusty steed died, the cowboy had him stuffed and put on display. Had Rogers attempted this homage today, he would have drawn the fire of animal cruelty fanatics.

Fanaticism may be the best way to describe the latest political correctness convulsion in the academy and certain other precincts of the wider society: the trigger alert. For some time, it has been a minor sport at our house to note how Hollywood’s ratings system describes potentially traumatic elements in movies. Usually, the warnings assure us that no animals were harmed (the perpetually rampant Trigger might beg to differ) or that dangerous stunts have been performed only by qualified stunt actors. But lately, movies have begun to give us detailed warnings about violent themes, intense sequences, sexual innuendo, drug use, and smoking. In the recent sci-fi thriller Oblivion with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, a warning appeared in the end credits to assure viewers that the cigar that Freeman so boldly smoked as leader of the underground rebels was used only for artistic purposes. This was followed by a mini-lecture on the adverse effects of second-hand smoke. I suppose we should be grateful that Hollywood has not yet begun plastering retroactive warnings on classic movies where actors smoke with great style and willful abandon. Somewhere along the way, warnings and disclaimers entered the red zone and escalated into triggers.

Commentary on trigger warnings has been circulating for some time in print and the blogosphere. In case you missed it, a trigger warning is an alert that material about to be read or viewed may contain elements that could lead to an anxious, stressful, or traumatic reaction. Topics meriting trigger alerts might include misogyny, the death penalty, calorie counts, terrorism, drunk driving, a person’s weight, racism, guns, drones, homophobia, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, suicide, drug use, medical procedures, corpses, skulls, skeletons, needles, “-isms” of almost any kind, referring to a person as “stupid” or “dumb,” kidnapping, dental trauma, sexual or gender matters, death or dying, insects, snakes, blood, scarification, Nazi paraphernalia, slimy things, or holes.

Even more insidious, trigger alerts have begun appearing on college syllabi, preparing students to encounter subject matter that might cause them to consider possibly disturbing new ideas or perspectives.  Such encounters used to be considered essential components of higher education. Inside Higher Ed noted the text of Oberlin College’s trigger warning for professors teaching Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: “ [The novel] is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.” Editorializing aside, this trigger alert should also carry a spoiler alert since it gives away an important incident in the novel. Jay Caspian Kang in The New Yorker observes ruefully that a professor’s trigger alert in a course reading Nabokov’s Lolita ruined that novel’s enchantment for him as a writer.

Campus critics of trigger warnings point out that it is very difficult to craft a policy that covers every possible trigger. Administrators have suggested developing alternative reading lists for courses, a suggestion that pleases few already-overworked professors. Those opposed to trigger warnings believe they limit academic freedom. Those in favor of a trigger policy believe that such warnings remove unspoken anxieties and facilitate more open classroom discussions.

There’s little debate that graphic content and disturbing scenes presented in a classroom should be prefaced with a brief warning or that students should have the opportunity to leave the room or remain silent during discussions as necessary. It is also worth noting that trigger warnings in the realm of sexual misconduct may serve to prevent assault and abuse. But it seems there is some disagreement about what merits a trigger warning and when to apply it. What effect do trigger warnings have on academic freedom? After all, one person’s trigger alert may be another person’s censorship. (The Hollywood ratings system came directly out of increasing censorship in motion picture content following a series of celebrity scandals in the 1920s and 1930s.)

Of course, the potential for satire is ripe here. One blogger wrote that he expects trigger warnings in any discussion of bug infestation or animals in wigs. The New Republic has suggested with a wink that The Onion should come with trigger warnings. Should people who are crabby in the morning sport trigger warnings? What about rude drivers or restaurant diners with poor table manners?

What began as well-intentioned warnings of limited utility is now an intricate system of potential defense against anticipated offense. I’m OK but maybe—trigger warning—I shouldn’t assume that you’re OK. It is as if society were supposed to protect its fragile members from the element of surprise, the unexpected, even the very future. (Trigger Warning: Unknown events about to transpire.) Enthusiastic propagators of trigger warnings (are they trigger happy?) would have us believe they are looking out for our best interests, acting in the interests of community, looking to ensure that compassion rather than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the result of any potentially challenging situation or topic.

I made the decision not to watch a very popular HBO series because of its graphic sex scenes and excessive violence to people and animals. Yet, I decided to watch another series containing some of those same disturbing elements because I found that its character development and production values offset the offensive scenes and to some degree justified them. I would not have wanted these decisions made for me by trigger alerts. Nor would I have wanted to have my expectations colored by assumptions about my taste or tolerance.  Which I guess is just to say that I have a low tolerance for people who presume to know what my tolerances are—or even might be.

Trigger Warning:  Nanny state expansion underway.