Warning: These Words Could Be Dangerous


By Zach Schepis

Image courtesy of Isaac Mao.

For a high school or college professor with hundreds of novels to choose from in the literary canon, the question of what to teach has become surprisingly difficult. What about Virginia Woolf’s heralded narrative Mrs. Dalloway? Reader beware: there are suicidal inclinations contained within the text. Let’s move on to another.

What about the American classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Only so long as students are warned beforehand that they will encounter instances of intense racism and violence. How about Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice? That play touches upon anti-Semitism.

Let’s not even get into Lolita.

Okay, so what about The Great Gatsby? Here’s a text that has become a crowning staple in the diet of almost every hungry academic at some point or another. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story has arguably become one of the most iconic novels in our nation’s history.

But before you dig in, just remember that the book “possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive, and misogynistic violence.”

What kind of overly paternalistic educator would spoil such a fantastic read with the above disclaimer? Believe it or not, those words of warning actually came from a student.

If you haven’t heard of trigger warnings yet, you certainly will soon. The ongoing debate around these trigger warnings is coming to a boil at colleges, universities, and other academic institutions across the country. Professors, feeling the impending pressure to censor reading material to protect their pupils, are lashing out at what they believe to be an unnecessary stifling of self-expression, freedom of thought, and creative values.

“When I first heard about these trigger warnings I couldn’t believe it,” says Millie Lugo, who has been teaching students at Canterbury High-School in Fort Myers, Florida for close to thirty years.

“That level of political correctness might seem to have good intentions on the surface, but in actuality it’s undermining a lot of the independence that we try and promote in the classroom.”

However, it’s the students who are choosing to forego this independence; citing that those who have suffered from traumatic events such as abuse and rape need forms of disclosure before they encounter a text that could potentially trigger those harmful memories.

As a combatant to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the argument that trigger warnings could provide a necessary cautionary tool continues to hold ground. Maximum safety and comfort at the expense of self-control, however, seems a little troublesome to independent seekers of knowledge.

The debate first surfaced at Oberlin College last year, when students drafted a guide that curtailed what teachers should be allowed to include in their syllabuses. The guide said that they should highlight any material that could “disrupt a student’s learning” and “cause trauma.”

“Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” the guide reads.

Though sexism and racism are well known in popular language, some of these other phrases are relatively new to our vernacular. Cissexism refers to the inferiority of anyone who is transgender, while ableism is the discrimination towards anyone with a physical disability.

“I have a friend who goes to Oberlin,” David Rivera, a SUNY Purchase alum, tells BTR. “She said that her Literature teacher was really bothered by it… You could tell she was about to burst every time she had to warn the students about something that could potentially harm them. Eventually I guess she just started refusing to do it.”

The Oberlin guide states all forms of violence are traumatic and educators should strive to remember that students have lives before and outside of the classroom, as well as experiences that cannot be understood through inference alone.

For a text such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, however, the trigger warnings come across more than a little overbearing. According to the Oberlin students that drafted the trigger warnings guide, Achebe’s novel, which is set in colonial-era Nigeria, should come attached with a warning that the novel could trigger readers who have experienced religious persecution and colonialism.

“PTSD for instances of colonialism and domination? Now that just seems ridiculous,” says Lugo.

A handful of Oberlin professors began complaining about the new syllabus requirements, and before long they were dropped. But, the debate has spread to other schools, such as Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University, among many others where it is beginning to gain momentum.

While students may be the primary force acting along the trigger warning forefront, there are many well-established professionals that too believe these classroom warnings serve a vital purpose in education.

Roy Lubit MD, PhD is board certified in forensic psychiatry, child psychiatry, and general psychiatry. He also has a special expertise in evaluating emotional trauma in both children and adults, specifically PTSD cases. For Lubit, these impending trigger warnings are essential.

“Nobody has even begun to consider it until recently, but books should absolutely have the same kind of rating system that you see with major motion pictures,” he tells BTR.

“For some reason violence is never questioned in books, though the affects can be internalized with the same intensity that a viewer experiences during a movie,” Lubit explains. “Sometimes with novels the effects can even be more polarizing, as the reader has to internalize the information for themselves in an interpretive and far more engaging manner.”

Lubit believes that freely exposing instances of extreme sex and violence, without proper preliminary measures, can bear dire consequences for young adults. These over-the-top instances of chaos have the power to shatter a young individual’s conceptions of what is acceptable in society. Lubit asserts that the reason why young children today lack the discipline they once had is because of this laissez faire attitude toward explicit material.

The same goes for individuals suffering from PTSD: any likelihood toward healing and regenerating healthy values are diminished when content triggers trauma memories without ample warning or foresight into the context. There is already far too much of this graphic content available for consumption, he argues, and therefore there need not be any more.

“Most of the time you really don’t even need these scenes of extreme sex and violence,” says Lubit. “They often only try to appeal to a certain ‘shock value’ audience, and rarely do much to advance the plot or meaning of a story.”

The most recent battle being fought on the behalf of these trigger warnings is taking place at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Students recently wrote up a new dictate entitled “A Resolution to Mandate Warnings for Triggering Content in Academic Settings,” which seeks to define and implement a broader use for trigger warnings. The document has been presented before a UCSB student government chapter of the Associated Students with favorable reception.

“This Surgeon General’s Warning for literature needs to stop,” warns Lugo. “Or we may soon find ourselves traumatized by a set of far scarier truths.”

While more and more instances of trigger warnings surface in academic institutions nationwide, opposition may very well come to a head. No one, however, is quite sure to which side the issue will finally sway.

“There is a price to pay for letting these explicit mediums into the minds and hearts of our children and young adults,” says Lubit. “And I think people are finally starting to realize it.”