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

12 Comments »

  1. >>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?<<

    Agreed.

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    Comment by Wayne — June 11, 2014 @ 4:41 am | Reply

  2. I too hope it doesn’t happen, for if it does where would it stop and who would take on responsibility for deciding or enforcing? (Definitely not editors!) I suppose the proponents see it as similar to the ratings for movies or the warnings before some TV programs (“this program contains violence and adult themes”).

    If individual colleges or libraries feel they have to protect readers then I guess there is nothing to stop them putting a sticker on the cover or title page if they feel they must. But they are potentially creating a bigger problem for themselves – next a student who feels traumatised by a book that has no warning will complain that it’s the library’s fault and will sue or at least use it as an excuse for not completing the assignment.

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    Comment by Jim Hart — June 11, 2014 @ 4:50 am | Reply

  3. Trigger warnings for books are already in place: (1) the cover, (2) the jacket blurb, and (3) the prose itself. Marketing and publicity enhance the message. In the U.S., at least today, readers are free to not read a book or close it and walk away if it bothers them. Even if they weren’t, it’s physically impossible to force someone to read.

    In the case of mandatory reading lists, such as in school, the teacher and/or administration already selects what students will read; and, unless things have changed a lot since I went through the education system, a lot of those mandatory reads — be they literary or factual — cover the dark side of life. I can’t imagine how you could build a curriculum on any subject using only nonoffensive or nonagitating material. Might as well just teach everyone basket weaving.

    Parents and students go through a lot of research and angst to get into a college and decide what courses to take. This allows them to select the educational environment and bias they prefer. The parameters of the institution will influence what books are offered for study, and even if there’s a rating system, each institution will have its own interpretation and spin. Most institutions have a vehicle in place for students to request special handling of a class situation, so that if a student is too disturbed by required material to complete an assignment on which their grade depends, they have a means to work around it. (They can also drop the course.) I believe that going through the effort of the workaround is good training for the real world, and the onus should remain on the student to handle a grievance rather than the institution trying to guess what might cause a grievance and make decisions for all students based on fear.

    I disagree with one remark of AE’s [*emphasis* mine]: “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.” This statement is too broad (and is contradicted at the start of the same paragraph: “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].”)

    The word “should” is behind the very issue being objected to, i.e., someone deciding what’s good for other people to read based on their own narrow definitions. IMO, books *should* run the gamut from highbrow to lowbrow, covering every subject imaginable. People *should* be allowed to decide for themselves. Schools *should* offer material appropriate for education and the development of thinking, discerning adults.

    Requiring a book to always challenge someone’s beliefs invalidates much of fiction. Sometimes all a book needs to be is a good story. Or a laugh. The publishing industry, and now self-publishers, is constantly struggling to package books to communicate their content to the right readers. It’s easy enough to get that wrong; just as easy for any rating system to blow it, enabling readers to get surprised anyway.

    If you’re going to try controlling book content, you might as well eliminate books. And television. And music.And film. And newspapers. And the web.

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    Comment by Carolyn — June 11, 2014 @ 5:55 am | Reply

  4. I think you may have read some inaccurate media coverage on what trigger warnings are. They are intended for content that may ‘trigger’, i.e. cause a flare up of a psychiatric condition such as PTSD. They are not intended to mark upsetting content, or books that may challenge beliefs or ideas. Therefore, a book about the holocaust would only require a trigger warning if you expected your participants to include holocaust survivors (or perhaps survivors of other genocides).

    Furthermore, a trigger warning is intended for triggering content that cannot reasonably be expected from the title of the book/lecture/film/whatever. So a course on, say, ‘Violence in the Modern American Novel’ would not need a trigger warning. However, if the course were entitled ‘Love in the German Novel’ and one novel included a violent rape scene that could not be expected from its title, it might be appropriate to add a trigger warning to the course notes so that students are forewarned about what they are going to read.

    Usually, as Carolyn says, we can choose what to read. However, in a college setting, the reading is assigned so the idea of people being able to ‘just walk away’ is less applicable.

    There is no suggestion that these warnings be used to censor or discourage people from reading, or to control book content. They are also unrelated to banned library books.

    The relevant aspect of PTSD (I don’t have any personal connection with these issues) is that, when triggered, it causes ‘re-experiencing’ and flashbacks of the event that caused it. If you don’t forewarn people, they will be experiencing these flashbacks in a place where they should be able to concentrate on their education. Accurate information in advance would enable people to prepare for these experiences, or to choose whether to take the course in the first place.

    Various studies have suggested that around one in five female college students have been raped, and therefore, a large number of students in the average college lecture will have been the victim of a violent crime in recent years. I find it difficult to argue against a small and unobtrusive measure that survivors of such crimes say would help them. We are talking about a few words (Please note that this novel contains scenes of…). As college campuses in the US are currently doing such a poor job of preventing such crimes, the least they can do is try to make it easier for survivors to complete their education. Trigger warnings are only intended for victims of trauma. If that is not you, then they need not concern you.

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    Comment by Gem — June 11, 2014 @ 7:17 am | Reply

    • I do not believe that I am misreading the trigger warnings controversy. Consider this story in the New York Times: “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/us/warning-the-literary-canon-could-make-students-squirm.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw&_r=0) (Tiny URL: http://tinyurl.com/nlr9net).

      You wrote: “They are intended for content that may ‘trigger’, i.e. cause a flare up of a psychiatric condition such as PTSD. They are not intended to mark upsetting content, or books that may challenge beliefs or ideas. Therefore, a book about the holocaust would only require a trigger warning if you expected your participants to include holocaust survivors (or perhaps survivors of other genocides).” How would anyone know that a student in the class had been raped or survived a genocide unless that student broadcast it, which rarely occurs. And how would a professor know what exactly would trigger PTSD in any student.

      You may be right that the original intent was that “a trigger warning is intended for triggering content that cannot reasonably be expected from the title of the book/lecture/film/whatever,” but based on reports I have seen, it has broadened far from that limitation. Regardless, even with your suggested limitation we run into the issue of what is reasonable to one person is unreasonable to another (witness the controversy over “Huckleberry Finn”). How is that conundrum to be resolved?

      The issue raises lots of questions — both moral and ethical.

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      Comment by americaneditor — June 11, 2014 @ 7:34 am | Reply

  5. Very interesting topic! Your explanation in the comments of what “trigger warnings” really are was very useful. I had no idea there was a discussion going on about trigger warnings on books. I also thought that with blurbs and paraliterature it would have been enough.

    Nice to see I was not the only one affected by “Lord of the Flies”, which I also read at an early age. I would have appreciated a trigger warning on Doris Lessing’s “The Fifth Child” which I read when I was pregnant.

    Glad to be following your excellent blog.

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    Comment by marce7a — June 11, 2014 @ 8:40 am | Reply

  6. I, too, am generally opposed to trigger warnings for many of the reasons already stated. It does not seem to be limited to just warnings of things like rape and PTSD. I fear that we are creating a generation that is unwilling to be uncomfortable, and trigger warnings reinforce that this is okay. Also, as already mentioned, what one person has no problem with, another may find objectionable or “triggering.” I think it sets professors up for complaints from students who feel they should have been warned about something when it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the professor to have anticipated that. Also, what do we do with someone who reads a trigger warning and is concerned about reading the book? Do we give them a pass? I would certainly hope not. But if they are still going to be required to read the book, how does the trigger warning help?

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    Comment by Erica Ellis — June 11, 2014 @ 10:12 am | Reply

  7. I am in my early 60s and a past victim of more than one type of violence. Following two of those violent experiences, I read many of the books now being considered for trigger warnings. I survived those readings. My experiences brought me face-to-face with the terrible traumas borne by those who perpetrated their violence on me. The books I read helped me see that this struggle isn’t new, won’t go away, and must be taken on with an objective mind and strengthened emotions.

    I read the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in 7th grade. The librarian didn’t stop me from checking it out, but she did ask if I knew what the book was about. I told her I wanted to understand how the things that happened in the war could have happened.

    Checking back on recent news relating to the subject of this column, I discovered that one female student had brought a type of trigger element up after she had to sit through a graphic rape video in class. Being a rape victim, this was a distressing experience. As a rape victim myself, I instantly wondered what possible educational value was perceived in showing this video – but then, someone certainly had some rational perception behind it – ?

    As an editor, I do not take on book edit projects that are predominantly graphic violence. None of my potential editing projects come with trigger warnings. I take responsibility for my personal and professional preferences and protections.

    I have concerns about stamping books as things to be warned about – one is because it creates a lazy mental environment where readers don’t have to make decisions based on their own determinations or personal preferences. Reading books is not to be placed in the same bin with ‘I don’t look good in yellow, therefore I never wear yellow’. When I was in college, if someone had warned me about books before reading I would have felt my right of personal experience was being infringed upon.

    At college level, I participated in many reading groups associated with my classes. We read all kinds of books. We discussed how they made us feel personally and our opinions of the issues raised. Some, including me, had strong reactions. But – each book and each discussion allowed our group of young adults to explore these reactions and why they existed. It was intellectual, revealing, and often inspiring.

    My other concern with stamping warnings on books is the impossible task of maintaining the original ideal. Eventually, the process will be presumed to be in place and working properly. Overseers will relax their attention, as we all do when things seem to be running smoothly, and then — someone with an agenda, not strictly within the original ideal, will enter the system – and the infection and contamination of the ideal will begin. Personal power becomes the victim and acceptance of being told how to think is perceived as the gracious way to live.

    Gives me the creeps, guys…

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    Comment by TigerXGlobal (@TigerXGlobal) — June 11, 2014 @ 11:48 am | Reply

  8. I think it is from a position of privilege that we judge the traumatic reactions of others.

    Movies carry ratings, and I am grateful for them. Even more grateful am I to the descriptions provided on IMDB so I can judge for myself whether or not I can handle the “scenes of violence.”

    One book I read actually did have a violence warning on it. But I was expecting a bar brawl, not a gory description of the gang rape of a toddler at the end of chapter one. A more detailed warning would have been nice.

    Since I read audiobooks, the scene assaulted me rather louder and for longer than it might have if I’d ben able to skim and skip the pages. I couldn’t leap for the STOP button fast enough.

    Editors are also subject to triggers in the works they edit. Maybe more so because of the long and close attention they pay to the words: http://www.copyediting.com/how-edit-difficult-subjects

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    Comment by Adrienne Montgomerie (@sciEditor) — June 11, 2014 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  9. Excellent point.

    I’ve survived several awful experiences, including rape, and avoid material that might bring them back to the forefront of my mind, but I’d rather take a chance on that happening than see censorship get increased support. And that’s what trigger warnings on books would lead to.

    If I had been in a class that showed a rape on video, I would have spoken up to object to it before it went any further and/or walked out of the class. If I thought the video was both inappropriate and irrelevant to the class, I would have said something to the professor and the department, and spoken up about it in the next class session.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — June 12, 2014 @ 11:35 am | Reply

    • Thank you for sharing that perspective, Ruth. Like you, I am not comfortable arguing for censorship, but I do appreciate advance notice so I can decide what experiences I want to have.

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      Comment by Adrienne Montgomerie (@sciEditor) — June 24, 2014 @ 9:42 am | Reply

  10. […] know there are defenders of trigger warnings (see the comments to Trigger Warning: This Essay May Cause Mental Disturbance), but no one has yet defined the boundary beyond which trigger warnings need not be given. In […]

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    Pingback by Should Editors Give Trigger Warnings? | The Digital Reader — January 6, 2016 @ 8:27 am | Reply


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