Reader discretion is advised

“They’re all theatre. You don’t understand them, you don’t like them all – why should you? Theatre is for everybody – you included, but not exclusively – so don’t approve or disapprove. It may not be your theatre, but it’s theatre for somebody, somewhere…”

Bill Sampson in All About Eve

A trio of takes on trigger warnings.

It is not reasonable for a university professor to anticipate all of the potential triggers that literature (or any other subject – history, anatomy, chemistry) might represent for students. Literature, like any art, should provoke and challenge and stimulate thought and discussion. At some point, people are responsible for themselves and their lives, and I would think attending university or college would be a reasonable point (actually, I think it starts well before that…). Course materials and syllabi are not hidden or surprises to students, so there is already enough information available for those with trigger issues to do some self-screening in advance, and either prepare themselves to participate or choose to skip that novel/film/course. If universities are responsible for managing and mitigating these triggers – essentially protecting people from themselves – how soon till they need to screen students choices: restricting combat veterans from taking course in military history or not allowing women with experiences of sexual violence to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles? A not-so-unlikely next step for schools wanting to avoid the potential complaints and lawsuits of the triggered. Trigger warnings mean that only safe and calm and politically correct materials are studied – a slippery slope to censorship.

I share this writer’s fears, not because I’m a budding novelist, but because I appreciate that the joy and challenge of literature is the unknown. Like a spoiler, a trigger warning could undermine the entire experience of a story for the reader by boiling it down to its basest element (or even an incorrect interpretation) and removing all elements of discovery or reveal that that author may have intended and the reader could have experienced.

Consider some of the more wonderful and complex novels and stories, and try to encapsulate the disturbing elements of the story without judgement, but also being crass or simplistic. Try writing the trigger warning(s) for Timothy Findlay’s Not Wanted on the Voyage.

How can these warning help but become judgemental in application? Unlike movie ratings warnings, which focus on some specific elements (sex, violence, language) but do not indicate motivation, trigger warnings such as those intended would reveal the supposed intent of the author and/or the material, prejudicing any reader into a perspective before the story has even begun.

This commentary addresses the near-absurdity of trigger warnings, albeit from a predominantly feminist point of view. The essence is summed up: “The hope that safety might be found, as in a therapist’s office, in a classroom where literature is being taught is in direct contradiction to one purpose of literature, which is to give expression through art to difficult and discomfiting ideas, and thereby to enlarge the reader’s experience and comprehension.” That is the point – the classroom is not suppose to be safe from learning.

For me, much of this article is undermined by the accompanying illustration, indicating that trigger warnings are intended for women only. My understanding is that they are to be supportive of anyone, including men, with a past traumatic event that might make the subject matter difficult. And the discussion about the UCSB killer and the #YesAllWomen meme reinforces that trigger warnings are a feminist issue, and so not about making the classroom safer for everyone, just for women.

Men are expected by society to endure and transcend any abuse or harassment, to see it not as something to be feared, but at best just harmless fun or, at worst, experience to toughen them up. These same men have little to no support available to them, not when compared to that available to women (a notable exception might be for men with combat experience and post-trauma issues, but even those still tend to be marginalized). Any past abuse that the UCSB killer endured is no excuse or rationale for his actions, but that his past experiences are not considered or minimized as a contributing factor to his madness is indicative of a stereotype that does not empower women, it only denigrates men for being human.

Perhaps a better approach could mimic old TV warnings: viewer discretion is advised. In other words, if you’re a person who might want or need a warning about some subject matter, please consult the internet about this material before reading.

Reader discretion is always advised. At some point, readers, like viewers of art or film, must know that they are taking a risk and exposing themselves to potentially challenging or controversial or thought-provoking material. We read literature – whatever that means – to learn, to experience the world through the words and ideas of others. There is enough information out there about novels and stories and works that someone with a fear or concern about content could find out more and use their discretion. So why should the unanticipatable concerns or fears of the few override the potential joy and discovery for so many others, or undermine the artists real message? Any considerations to mitigate triggers should also consider the purpose and benefits of literature or any art, and should definitely not discriminate, lest it verge from warning to into censorship.

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