I came across this article by Jerry Coyne on Friday in the course of my regular news reading. I was surprised to see it pop up, because it was curated by a tumblr that I follow in order to get a wide smattering of articles that generally express a liberal bent, and usually the sentiments that come up are things that make sense in the context of that particular ideology. Coyne’s article, by contrast, seems like the sort of thing that a grumpy old white guy who hates the fact that the world doesn’t want to revolve around people like him anymore would write (surprise! Coyne is, in fact, an old white guy). For anyone who doesn’t want to bother with clicking through, the general gist of Coyne’s article is that students who want trigger warnings applied to works of Western literature need to get over themselves and stop asking their professors to take the place of licensed therapists who can help them work through their issues.
No, I don’t know how he makes that logical leap from asking for a heads up about potentially triggering content to wanting literature professors to conduct therapy in their lecture halls. I’m pretty confident that’s not what the students he’s discussing are actually asking for, and nothing that he mentions in the article from the organization that represents these students at Columbia University really backs up that inference.
Instead, I think that what’s happening here with Coyne (as what happens with so many other people who deride trigger warnings) is that he’s conflating a trigger warning with a content warning. Content warnings are those things that we tend to slap on music and movies explaining that a particular work contains depictions of sex, violence, drugs, etc. so that a person who isn’t familiar with the work can decide if there’s anything they might find culturally objectionable. Trigger warnings have a similar but distinct purpose in explaining if a work contains depictions of something that has potentially traumatic associations (the most common ones used these days relate to various forms of sexual violence and violence against women). It’s important to recognize that one type of warning is about cultural sensitivity, and the other is about accommodating people with a disability. Say whatever you want about cultural sensitivity (I’m generally in favor of it as a rule, but I understand some people have reservations about considering the mores of others), but do not conflate it with helping the disabled.
Let me back up and explain myself a little more clearly about what I mean when I say people with disabilities. We’re prone to thinking of disabilities predominantly as chronic physical ailments and ignoring conditions which don’t present as obvious. It’s the same bias that people suffering from mental health problems have to deal with when others dismiss their problems as a personal failing. A person who requires a trigger warning to avoid a particular subject in our cultural discourse is suffering from a disability that has usually been brought on by severe past trauma. We call them trigger warnings because the things they warn about have the potential to trigger symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. That is a disability, plain and simple.
As for the ever present rejoinder about how far we go in providing trigger warnings, it’s best to keep it simple. You warn about things that you know are most commonly associated with various kinds of trauma. Sexual assault and abuse are major societal maladies, and it’s reasonable to assume that a significant portion of any given population might have been exposed to these things. As our conversations evolve and we come to realizations about other traumatic elements that pervade our culture, we’ll probably expand the list of things that deserve trigger warnings as a way of being as inclusive as possible.
Trigger warnings, at their core, are about allowing people with PTSD to access as much of our cultural discourse as possible, because it’s a good thing when people are able to participate. Deriding their demands for accommodation isn’t some kind of principled stand against fascism; it’s just being an asshole.