warningWarning: the following may make you uncomfortable; consider yourself warned!

Rebecca Mead’s Talk of the Town article in the June 9th New Yorker (“Literature and Life”) brings into focus the current trend on college campuses to issue trigger warnings for pieces of literature being read in Lit. classes. If you haven’t heard about these trigger warnings, then let me explain. A trigger warning is the equivalent of a parental warning sticker on a cd or video game, or a movie rating plastered on a trailer. It exists, in the case of these current warning labels,  to warn the reader of material contained within the text that could possibly, according to Mead, ” be sufficiently graphic to spark symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” things like discussions of rape, racism, anti-semitism,” and a whole host of other -isms. In other words, a trigger warning should be issued for any text that might make the reader uncomfortable.

And to that I say: “Phooey.”

I really wanted to say worse, but I refrained. The reality is that triggers, in this case, are flat out wrong. And misguided. And potentially just stupid.

The thing about warning labels of all stripes is that they are and always have been born out of the world of good intentions. And some are really valid. The high voltage signs are good. The underrated stop sign is a blessing. Poison labels on cleaners and household products are blessings and have saved countless lives. Cigarette warnings for pregnant women? Obvious, but still really good. I don’t mind these things at all. But warning labels on books? That I mind.

The inherent nature of literature is that it challenges us. Throughout history, books that have moved people have been those that were able to dissect, either blatantly or covertly, the existing, often erroneous norms that current society lives by, and once laid bare, reveal the inherent hypocrisy within. And that’s often not for the faint of heart. It’s hard to move a person’s entrenched sensibility with pretty, neutral language or flowery, light situations. You can’t, for example, completely understand what Twain is saying about racism in Huckleberry Finn if you don’t experience the 219 examples of the word nigger that he peppers his text with. Is it unsettling? Yes. Does it have the potential to offend African-American readers?  Absolutely. Heck, it has the potential to- and often does- offend all readers; I have a sneaking suspicion that that is what Twain was angling for. The controversy over a sanitized version of Huck simply illustrates this: you have to read the original in order to get the message clearly. The cleaned up text loses its effectiveness. It gets mired down in trying to clean up its act, and in so doing loses the shock value that helps drive home the point. And Huck is one of a myriad of books that work for this discussion.

To further show the ludicrous nature of slapping a trigger warning on a book I will pull the following quote from a Rutgers student who, as quoted in Mead’s article, states in the campus newspaper that these trigger warnings “would contribute to preserving the classroom as a “safe space” for students.” Now I’m all about making my classroom a safe space, but I actually feel that my classroom is the ideal locale to engage with texts that place us well out of our comfort zone. What better spot can there be to navigate challenging texts, to develop strategies for dealing with the outrage and sadness that often accompany the reading of such books, and to be walked through those emotions to better understand the latent messages beneath (one of which, authorial intent, is a darling of the Common Core)? And, once given an opportunity to see that challenging texts can be read and digested without fear, students can then go forth and read them on their own (well, hopefully they’ll do this) without the need for trigger warnings. Of course, age appropriateness matters, but this is the job of the teacher and school to accurately assess and assign texts where they best fit in with the developmental levels of the students sitting in the classrooms. I’m not arguing that Huck belongs in a sixth grade curriculum,  but the book sure fits in with adolescents and their developing world views. In fact, it provides a springboard for some pretty rich conversations.

And why does this controversial text, or any other on the book list, function as such for students? Because literature informs us about being human. It guides us. Being human is often beautiful and profound, but it is also ugly and brutal. To not absorb the lessons that good texts offer us as guides on our journey through this life bodes poorly for our chances of surviving on our own. Without this set of skills we would then become dependent on the warnings alone to guide us from situation to situation, and what  happens when the triggers fail to surface? Unprepared, we will fail, unable to transfer the experiences gleaned from books to normal, real life situations. And that failure has the potential to be spectacular in its scope and implications.

Maybe trigger warnings themselves need trigger warnings. Or maybe we need a new set of tweet-ready triggers like these: #notriggerwarning. #icanreadwithoutwarnings. #icanhandlethatbook.

© 2014 – 2015, Brian Stumbaugh. All rights reserved.