An American Editor

June 11, 2014

Trigger Warning: This Essay May Cause Mental Disturbance

I have always thought that a good education was one that caused the recipient of the education to think. As part of that process, reading saccharine, as opposed to bitter-herbed, books was not a way to stimulate thinking. After all, if a book simply reinforces what you already believe, what have you gained from it? What will it cause you to think about?

In some online forums, some discussions are segregated in the sense that there is a warning and you have to take affirmative action to access those discussions; they are not part of the discussions that you normally see after logging in to the forum. Usually they are discussions centering on politics, religion, sex, and violence. I agree that if you are joining a forum to learn how to edit a book or run a business, you do not expect to have to deal with discussions regarding why American politicians make Satan look like the leading contestant for the person of the year award.

But what about in the classroom? I do not mean in the primary and secondary classroom; I mean in the college classroom. Or what about in a forum on books — not on book production but on the books themselves and their literary value? Should books and reading assignments carry “trigger warnings”?

For those unfamiliar with the trigger warning controversy, let us step back a moment. A trigger warning warns a prospective reader that the book the reader is thinking about reading (or has been assigned to read) contains material that someone (such as the reader), somewhere, might somehow, someday, in some state of mind, find offensive or, worse, traumatic to read or discuss or think about or be challenged by. For example, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice would carry the trigger warning that it is anti-Semitic; Darwin’s Origin of Species would carry a warning that it contravenes the Bible’s creationism; Twain’s Huckleberry Finn would carry a warning that the book could be considered racist; Bahn’s The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art would carry a warning that it contains depictions of zoophilia; and on it goes.

The idea of the trigger warnings is to alert the reader that a book contains something that might trigger a harrowing memory, for example, of a sexual molestation, of a difficult event from the reader’s life, or cause the reader anguish (perhaps trauma) over something that affected either the reader or someone the reader knows. Basically, trigger warnings are intended to prevent traumatizing the reader by the book’s content.

I can remember reading William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” at a very young age and how that book affected me. To this day, the book is on my “books that I hope to never read again” list. I also remember the first time I read a nonfiction book about the Auschwitz concentration camp and saw photos of it and its victims — those dead and those who survived; I was deeply affected by the cruelty we can so callously inflict on each other. So it is not that I am unaware of the impact that a book can have on a person.

But what is the purpose of a college education if not to expose us to those things that make us intellectually uncomfortable? What is life without some trauma? What label could we devise that would cover all the possibilities? Why is it that we need a label, rather than to recognize that in any book there is likely to be something that will offend or cause discomfort. Consider the mainstay book of western civilization, the Bible. It includes the gamut of things that disturb most of us — rape, murder, starvation, cruelty, tyranny, savagery, and the list goes on and on. If we were to label the Bible, all we would have is a book of labels; there would be no space for the words themselves.

Coming round again to the college classroom, would we want to make education so saccharine that no book could be read unless it was a Dr. Seuss book because there is no book that isn’t offensive or traumatic to someone? How would you design a course that avoided all controversy and yet fulfilled what many believe is the function of college: teaching one to think and understand?

It seems to me that a book that causes no reaction from a reader is a book not worth reading (except when you have had a bad day dealing with cantankerous authors and seek something to read that goes in one eye and out the other without making any impression whatsoever). Such a book does not make one think about the surrounding world. Nor does it cause one to reconsider beliefs and positions fervently thought immutable. A book is a mini-university, or should be. It should include new ideas for the reader to contemplate; it should cause the reader to reevaluate long-held beliefs.

A book that carries trigger warnings would fail to fulfill the promise of education because a warned person is not only wary but takes steps to avoid what makes the person uncomfortable. We all do this, even if unconsciously, because none of us like to relive painful times in our lives. Trigger warnings carry, however, the mark of the censor. A trigger warning says that we are not mature enough or sophisticated enough to deal with life in the absence of a “parent” (“authority” figure) to guide us.

Of course, I am addressing the matter from the adult reader perspective (I do consider college students as adults, even if adults of limited experience). Once the issue is raised in the context of children and adolescents, the issue becomes less clear-cut. Yet, again, I would worry that trigger warnings would be used to censor and to prevent children and adolescents from reading books that they should read and discuss. Consider Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” or John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me.” Think of the warning trigger labels these books would carry. Shouldn’t these books be read by adolescents? Don’t these books raise issues that should be discussed by adolescents (and adults)?

Ultimately, the issue of having or not having a trigger warning is one that questions the abilities of individuals to determine for themselves what is to be read. How much parenting do we really need? Unanswered and unaddressed in the debate are issues such as: Will trigger warnings be required of all books? Who will determine what warnings a book requires? More importantly, how will that be determined? And the list goes on.

The how question is most intriguing. Many books are subject to library banning based on rumor — some parent, somewhere said something negative and the wildfire started. Rarely has the book to be banned been read by each of the people demanding the banning. Somewhere along the line someone will have to read the book to determine what warnings need to be applied. What about that reader’s trauma quotient?

Perhaps it will be another job for editors. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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