Over the weekend, Jennifer Medina reported in The New York Times that a petition is making the rounds at the University of California—Santa Barbara to put trigger warnings on syllabi to warn students about content in the materials that will be covered during the course. The Urban Dictionary defines a trigger warning as:
Used to alert people when an internet post, book, article, picture, video, audio clip, or some other media could potentially cause extremely negative reactions (such as post-traumatic flashbacks or self-harm) due to its content. Sometimes abbreviated as “TW.”
Students who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder may then choose to opt out of viewing or reading the material. Similar petitions to post trigger warnings have made the rounds at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, and other universities, according to Medina’s articles.
Trigger warnings are nothing to make light of. Just today, during a book talk I gave for university staff and faculty, I included a few warnings myself (all about Hanya Hanagihara’s The People in the Trees*). It was only fair to do so, I think. It gives potential readers the chance to avoid something they don’t want to see.
College, however, is a place to expose yourself to uncomfortable ideas. A trigger warning could be seen as a challenge line. I don’t have PTSD, but some topics bother me. Some topics bother me a lot. If the book or film covers abuse or violence or anything else that might trigger someone in a way that’s integral to the plot, I would urge readers to consider pushing themselves a little (and only if they’re comfortable). Literature can be a safe space. Literature can heal.
Something to think about.
* It’s an amazing book, but even I was bothered by some of the events and I’ve been reading harrowing mysteries for years.