Trigger Warning: Special Little Snowflake Ahead (Update)

It begins with a traumatic experience. The problem is that traumatic experiences, like every other feeling suffered by those who believe their sensitivities define the parameters of everyone else’s world, is a humpty dumpty phrase.  That’s a burden no one can meet, despite the most sincere words of UC Santa Barbara student Baily Loverin.

The demand is for “trigger warnings,” which is explained by the New York Times:

Should students about to read “The Great Gatsby” be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart” — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

It goes on to note that this notion, that students are entitled to be forewarned that something might upset them, is generating a movement across college campuses:

The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools.

Underlying this concern is the belief that people, regardless of age and relative status, are entitled to have their feelings shown “respect” to whatever degree they demand by those charged with teaching them.  As Loverin explains in the video, “it’s really not anyone else’s business.”

“We’re not talking about someone turning away from something they don’t want to see,” Ms. Loverin said in a recent interview. “People suddenly feel a very real threat to their safety — even if it is perceived. They are stuck in a classroom where they can’t get out, or if they do try to leave, it is suddenly going to be very public.”

Of course, nobody forces these young people to leave their home and venture out in the world, specifically to someone’s classroom, where they might hear words that trigger their deepest feelings of misery.

Professors aren’t thrilled with this development:

The debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.

Yet, an ironic aspect of the academic disapproval is that these student demands impair their freedoms.

“Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom,” said Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor at the university here, who often uses graphic depictions of torture in her courses about war.

See what she did there?  And yet, the balance of the paragraph reveals that the problem isn’t entirely about the elevation of feelings above all else, but that the students’ rights would come at the expense of the teacher’s rights.

“Any student can request some sort of individual accommodation, but to say we need some kind of one-size-fits-all approach is totally wrong. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.”

Would “individual accommodation” work any better when it comes to academic freedom?  What about the rights of the rest of the class to learn the substance of a lesson without it being filtered through one individual’s comfort level? Not likely.

The creation of this concept, that there is an entitlement to be forewarned about anything that might impact one’s feelings, isn’t exactly new, but was limited to places where emotion inherently trumped reason.

The term “trigger warning” has its genesis on the Internet. Feminist blogs and forums have used the term for more than a decade to signal that readers, particularly victims of sexual abuse, might want to avoid certain articles or pictures online.

But as it works its way closer to mainstream thought, it’s no longer just this self-selected group of particularly delicate minds impacted, but our precious darlings sent away to be groomed for the future leadership of our nation.  While we send large checks, they are deprived of another important lesson: Life triggers feelings, some of which will make you uncomfortable. Deal with it.

An unkind curmudgeon might react to this development by suggesting that this is sheer idiocy, to demand that no unpleasant thought ever reaches one’s fragile senses. But a more kindly one would note that moving beyond one’s particular sensitivities is reason number 6 for putting a student in the line of fire.

As FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff said:

“It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.”

Nobody makes it through life without someone or something offending them, no matter how tough they may be.  And nobody has the right (or the ability) to micromanage the world so that they never hear or see anything that triggers unhappy feelings.  If that hurts your feelings, tough nuggies. Get over it. And I say that with the utmost respect for your feelings.

Update:  And inexplicably, though not quite surprisingly, the New York Times’ Room for Debate raises these issues, giving college sophomore, Bailey Loverin, a platform to offer this deep insight:

Without a trigger warning, a survivor might black out, become hysterical or feel forced to leave the room. This effectively stops their learning process.

But, hysteria has its limits:

 So far, there is no official policy, no punishment for teachers and no censorship. Don’t lose sleep over fear mongering and slippery slope arguments.

Well, that makes me feel better, even though it’s not quite accurate (so she gets a “C.” It’s still a passing grade, right?). Especially since the Times didn’t invite Greg Lukianoff to be part of the discussion.

Update 2:  Judge Kopf says there are no trigger warnings in his courtroom.  Jeff Gamso says “get the fuck over it,” adding a one-time only special warning:

Before you start reading this blog, know that it says all sorts of offensive shit.  I curse.  I talk about rape and murder and mayhem.  I talk about pornography.  There are pictures of people, real people, who live (sometimes lived) in the real world and did fucking rotten things like killing babies and raping relatives and strangers.  I wallow in the gutter.

I don’t much care about your sensibilities.  I wrote a whole post once about a lawyer who got punished for calling a judge a cunt.  The court didn’t use the word.  i did. Repeatedly.  Don’t like it? Go away, motherfuckers.

Trigger warning: Old lawyers.

H/T Jill McMahon

43 thoughts on “Trigger Warning: Special Little Snowflake Ahead (Update)

  1. Brian Tannebaum

    the first time I ever saw the term “trigger warning,” was last week, and I has the Internet. I thought this whole thing was a joke. Actually…

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s because you are insensitive old man who doesn’t appreciate people’s delicate feelings.

  2. Pingback: Nor Feelings of Machismo | Simple Justice

  3. John Jenkins

    I wonder how much of this we as lawyers are responsible for, as we try to smooth out the contours of torts (IIED) and crimes (various flavors of harassment) that have as the primary injury hurt feelings. Once you have decided hurt feelings are actionable, the only question becomes where does one set the line (and who does the setting) and there is no way to avoid 1A implications here, once you involve state-supported schools. One would hope that we were made of sterner stuff!

    1. SHG Post author

      Crimes and torts designed to vindicate hurt feelings are a relatively modern invention. The initial arguments in their favor had a whiff of slippery slope, but the emotional appeal was strong and the cries of hurt were touching. But as you note, we are inevitably confronted with the problem of line-drawing, and come to the realization that there is no rational place to draw a line. That’s the “oh crap” moment when you realize that we started down a path with the best of intentions and ended up in perdition.

  4. Fubar

    Without a trigger warning, a survivor might black out, become hysterical or feel forced to leave the room.

    That’s what happened to me when I walked into my first PChem lecture. I’ve never been the same since. It’s good to know somebody cares.

    1. Brett Middleton

      The controversy does seem fixated on fictional works, but I can’t see why the arguments wouldn’t apply equally well to textbooks and lecture material. What about a psychology textbook that may have disturbing case studies? What about an anatomy textbook that may have disturbing images? What about a lab course or practical course that may expose the student to fetal pigs, frightening electrical doodads, or the process of collecting semen from stud bulls? Is there anything one might encounter in the course of an education that would be exempt from a requirement for trigger warnings? After all, there’s probably someone out there who might have a bad reaction to teddy bears, rainbows, and unicorns.

      Once the system is set up, then it will probably become socially mandatory to black out, go into hysterics, or flee the classroom at least once or twice a semester to show that you’re just as sensitive as everyone else. Those who tough it out without showing a reaction are probably closet psychopaths contributing to the rape culture.

      1. SHG Post author

        All men contribute to rape culture, whether closet psychopaths or not. Don’t you know anything?

    2. UltravioletAdmin

      While I agree there’s quite a bit of overreaction and Tumblr in Action here; part of the idea isn’t horrible, although the expression and proposed actions are (much like the revenge porn laws)

      The idea being giving those who’ve very much real PTSD conditions a fair warning. It’d be a good project for someone to use various academic guides, censor resources, etc to create a database for those with real issues to consult. And perhaps for a professor to be working with a student whose clear they know they will be discussing something very difficult.

      But that’s about voluntary action to give the student a chance to deal with their issues such that they can meaningfully participate. Anything else either is, or is close to Censorship.

  5. Jack B.

    Sometimes when someone does something really stupid, they’ll put their index finger to their temple and make a shooting gesture while saying, “Duh!” To most people, it’s a simple, meaningless gesture, but as someone who has had to deal with the suicides of two family members, I am kind of sensitive to this gesture.

    The first couple of times I saw it, it really did bother me; almost to the point of mentioning it to the person who made the gesture… emphasis on almost.

    The bottom line is, the gesture is not a “trigger”; my decision to associate a harmless gesture with a family tragedy is the trigger. Since it’s all about me and my perception, it’s unrealistic of me to expect the other 7 billion people on the planet to deal with my problems. That’s my job.

    But just to be on the safe side, could everyone who has a thumb and an index finger please get them surgically removed so that I can get on with my life? Thanks.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’ve nailed the problem. We may well have our own individual sensitivities, but we’re not the center of the universe and the world doesn’t run according to us. We can control what we do, but can’t demand that the rest of the world recreate itself to suit our will.

      1. mud man

        I would go further than that, even. It’s OK to feel disgusted, suddenly very afraid, or as if one is in the presence of an intolerable situation, that one should get off the ass and into the streets. That would be a GOOD thing for many people to feel.

          1. mud man

            That’s always the question, isn’t it? Wish I had a good answer. I suppose we will find out when we get there, if at all.

            1. SHG Post author

              Without a “good answer,” your previous comment is pointless and a waste of my bandwidth and attention.

            2. mud man

              That’s why I name myself as I do, I’m just a waste of time. I would have thought I was agreeing and enlarging on your point, but I will go back to growing my personal vegetables now. Gonna be a good year for apples here, looks as if.

              Somebody postulated rules around abuse:
              1. It didn’t happen
              2. we don’t talk about what didn’t happen
              3. we don’t talk about what we don’t talk about.

              I think maybe corrallary-wise, the first step in defeating abuse is to mobilize disgust. You say, I don’t want to DO this. Walk off the job. You think keeping yourself numb gets anything done?

            3. SHG Post author

              Unlike most of the internet, I don’t seek validation. But I do get things done, because people who make decisions sometimes find information or arguments here persuasive and apply them. Then, they read something like your comments and wonder why they bother to come here if its populated by vapid, pointless readers, and why bother to heed the ideas if they appeal to the insipid.

              This may not matter to you, but it matters to me.

          2. Jack B.

            I’d make a Martha & The Vandellas reference, but that might trigger traumatic memories of the Mick Jagger/David Bowie video.

  6. RAFIV

    I wholeheartedly support trigger warnings. How else will we stop the psycological and emotional trauma inflicted upon millions when they are forced to read Ethan Frome or – Heaven forbid – Death of a Salesman? Countless numbers will be saved from nights of unending agony as they ponder the fate of Godot and cry aloud: Oh when will he come! Only a heartless ageist leather clad male who has not checked his privilege could think as you. I will now tweet my indignation to shame you and show my solidarity with #causedujour.

  7. Charlesmorrison

    Will it ever end? I honestly had no idea just how untenable, unlivable our world has become to so many until I started reading this blog.

    I propose trigger warnings for boring material (might cause sleepiness) and utterly useless material (class is wasting my money).

  8. Bob Mc

    Freedom, including academic freedom, is a very sensitive subject for me personally.

    When I hear a term like “trigger alert”, I feel panicky, like the foundation of our country’s liberty is slipping out from under us.

    How can society protect ME from microagressions like “trigger alerts”?

  9. Richard G. Kopf


    Before I pronounce a life sentence for selling meth would a trigger warning be required for the defendant, his family and defense counsel (particularly if counsel graduated law school recently) given the new sensibilities you describe in such chilling detail?

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      Forget sentencing, Judge. Think arraignment. It might soon be reversible error if you don’t. And when you sentence, they will expect you to also mention something positive about them to bolster their fragile self-esteem.

  10. John S.

    It sounds to me like narcissism, plain and simple. The students are unwilling to consider that their reaction is even potentially less important than the actual topic of discussion. That said, I would admit that the picture of modern academia that gets painted here does easily lend itself towards imagining a circle of students with a professor asking “now, how does the holocaust make you feel?”…

    1. SHG Post author

      There seems to be an element, if not more, of narcissism in everything that involves students these days. I’ve written quite a bit about this as a general characteristic of Millennials, and then something like this comes along as if to prove the point.

  11. DD Jackson

    Forget ‘Life imitating Art’, we’ve moved on to Life imitating Reddit.

    Like melting polar ice caps, we’re probably past the point of no return on this one too.

    1. SHG Post author

      Not all the kids believe their feelings are paramount. There are a great many who see this as total special snowflake nonsense. There’s still hope.

  12. John Burgess

    Can’t universities just put a blanket “Trigger Warning!” atop the front gate? And the back gate, I guess.

    I guess it’s terminal old-fogeydom setting in, but I’d always had the idea that universities existed to challenge one, not confirm pre-existing biases.

  13. Pingback: How To Be An Effective Loser | Associate's Mind

  14. Dragoness Eclectic

    Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, I am a non-lawyer lurker. Since this does not appear to be a law post, and is about a topic that I have watched develop over the years, I feel free to toss my $0.02 in.

    As usual on the Internetl, what was originally a courtesy about thing A has morphed into an entitlement for thing B.

    Thing A: some people have PTSD, and can have flashbacks “triggered” by stuff related to the original trauma. The courtesy (which as far as I know originated in the fanfiction community, not feminists–they probably picked it up a few years later and were too embarassed to admit the “lowly” origins of the custom) was to put content or “trigger” warnings on stories dealing with disturbing issues so readers had the option of saying “not for me today, thanks, I don’t want to find myself thinking I’m back in Afghanistan / being raped again”, rather than getting “surprise violent scene with added flashback” in their leisure-fun reading.

    Thing B: The entitlement is that this courtesy (which by definition is a voluntary thing) is now demanded for anything that might upset the demanding person, who is not aware of the difference between “triggers PTSD flashbacks” and “makes me feel sad about kittens”. Sadly, this breed of idiot is working very hard to ruin the courtesy for the people who really need it, and they are spreading the stupid notion that they have a right not to be offended.

    Summary: “triggers PTSD” is not equivalent to “this offends me”. Courteously warning for the possibility of the former is not the same as requiring warnings that the latter might happen. In my opinion, the former is a courtesy by writers who don’t want to hurt their readers; the latter is entitled stupidity. People confusing the two and then going to the press, which handles nuance about as well as I handle a 10-lb sledge, just add to the general confusion and stupidity.

    1. SHG Post author

      Excellent and critical point about it moving from courtesy to entitlement. For a first comment, this was damn good.

    2. Brett Middleton

      A nice analysis, but I think you stop far too short when you trace it back to fanfic. I see it as the natural outgrowth of a trend we’ve been following for over a century.

      In the beginning, we simply censored things that might cause children and members of the fairer sex to have hysterics, nightmares, sexual thoughts, or violent impulses. We banned books and invented the Hays Code and the Comics Code Authority. As we backed off on this approach, we saw courtesy warnings appear in various contexts. Walter Cronkite might advise parents to have the children leave the room before airing a particular story. Certain documentaries and movies would air after a courtesy warning about possible disturbing material. Fanfic was hardly even a thing back then and the term PTSD hadn’t been invented. (It was still “battle fatigue” and nobody was talking about flashbacks, much less associating it with other traumatic events such as rape.)

      This courtesy soon became an entitlement that led to “voluntary” ratings for every movie, followed by television, music, and games. Is it really a surprise that this kind of thinking would eventually expand to books and other materials, using PTSD or some other horrid example as the poster child to illustrate the need? Soon we’ll probably see a “voluntary” shorthand warning stamped on the cover of every book, just like there is a bug in the corner of every TV program.

      The publishers will probably enjoy this once it becomes formalized into a rating system. Look at how much effort they put into getting just the right rating for movies, albums, TV shows, and games so that they can reach their desired target demographic. How much more trigger material do we have now than we might have otherwise, just to ensure hitting that magical “PG13” or “TVLV” rating?

  15. Pingback: Sensitive Sally Smacks Special Snowflake Student Silly | Simple Justice

Comments are closed.