Let’s face it. The world has become 360 degrees of constant chaos. Trigger warnings, which some academic institutions place in front of works of art and literature warning students that they may relive a traumatic experience by studying the work, are just one more reflection of how society has erected barriers. These same barriers prevent people from observing – and perhaps understanding – life. A trigger warning (or TW) is intended to allow readers to prepare for what might be an upsetting subject; yet it reduces a work of art to nothing more than its plot points, thus taking the moment of impact out of the equation.
The debate has left many academics fuming, according to New York Times writer Jennifer Medina (May 17, 2014). She suggests professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. “Trigger warnings,” Medina writes, “suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.”
Trigger warnings remove the substance from coffeehouse discussions and college seminars. When I was growing up, this was known as a conversation. Now, these same subject matters are considered dangerous. Really? How can we put a warning label on life itself?
Let’s put life and reality in perspective. The blog post by Jay Caspian Kang on http://www.newyorker.com (May 22, 2014) relays how during a graduate-school lecture on Lolita, his professor stood up in front of a crowded classroom and said something he had never been able to shake: “When you read Lolita, keep in mind that what you’re reading about is the systematic rape of a young girl.” Kang benefited from hearing a warning about a piece of literature that represents life, culture and raises questions about social norms. Why the warning?
I witnessed something just as disturbing as Kang’s experience. There was no trigger warning, nor was my professor cautioning me beforehand of the carnage I was about to witness. Long before Kang was in graduate school, I was driving on a crowded freeway in southern California and came upon the scene of a fatal vehicular accident. As my yellow Volkswagen bug crawled past the motionless truck, I saw an image that has remained imbedded in my mind for nearly four decades: the lifeless body of its driver suspended through the shattered plate glass window, with blood pouring from his puncture wounds. Haunted by this gruesome image, I wondered where the driver was from. Did he leave behind a wife and kids? How long after he was thrown through the windshield did it take for him to die? How much pain did he endure? Somewhat obsessed by the waste of a human life, I searched the newspaper in the days following the accident for a report or an obituary. Finding nothing, I wondered if this man’s life was meaningless, and his death had become nothing more than a traffic disruption.
The body sprawled through the truck’s window is an image I still remember today, yet I continue to drive. In fact, I used this image to propel the subject of my M.A. thesis about a young taxi driver who becomes comatose following an automobile accident. Did I get a TW on the freeway? No. I witnessed life – and death – unfold before my eyes; and from that experience I developed an awareness of how fragile life is.
While witnessing the still-fresh death of a gruesome auto accident pales by comparison to a rape or a violent attack, the trigger of a flashback is no less crippling. There is a parallel to living life, which is sometimes raw and often without any warning. Life doesn’t come neatly packaged with warning labels. It simply unfolds. As Kang opines in his blog, “A trigger warning or, really, any sort of preface, would disrupt the creation of those highly pressurized, vital moments in literature that shock a reader into a higher consciousness.”
Kang believes that literature should only be examined as an object unto itself – detached from time and history; however, it is the elements of story – both time and place – that help the reader better comprehend society and discover how culture has evolved over time. One thing I do agree with regarding Kang’s assessment about trigger warnings, is the impact they have on the creative process. Evolution requires freedom.
In his May 20, 2014 article, Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic, points out how trigger warnings are intended to caution about any content that might stoke anxiety or trauma. Friedersdorf suggests that critics of the “trigger warning” movement fear that requiring alerts in the classroom would chill speech and erode academic freedom. Others argue that the alerts are condescending, showy, or useless. The bottom line is that trigger warnings do not allow an audience to learn about life, even when the experience of life might be upsetting.
Several years ago I traveled to South Africa and Botswana, where I experienced life unfold in the most basic of ways: survival of the fittest. In the Kalahari Desert, animals fight to survive. On my second day of a safari, I witnessed a kill. An impala was attacked and ripped from limb to limb by a hungry cheetah. There was no trigger warning – only the blood-curdling squeal from an innocent impala as it was attacked, savagely mauled, and soon became the cheetah’s next meal.
Was there trauma? Yes.
Did I observe tricky terrain? You bet!
Was it graphic? Absolutely.
Did I watch crippling anxiety unfold? If you call death crippling, then yes; however, I realized that life as I observed it in Botswana was about survival of the fittest.
Reflecting back to my Kalahari safari, I wonder how trigger warnings would work. Friedersdorf believes that college students should know what’s coming when they set out to plumb human civilization. “A huge part of it is a horror show,” he says. “To spare us upset would require morphine.” There was no morphine on the floor of the Kalahari Desert.
Much closer to home, while waiting to take off from Boston, I realized how lucky that impala might have been to have lived life without a TW. There was a guy walking down the aisle of the airplane as I sat toward the front of the plane reading The Great Gatsby. He stopped near me as people beyond him were looking for a place to stash their luggage. No TW needed here. As I read my book, I was interrupted as the guy yapped on his cell phone. He was talking about some girl – Shelly – who was a slut. She had gone to bed with nearly every guy in his class. “Don’t repeat this,” he said. “She’s a regular patient at the abortion clinic.” Shelly was bad news, and if the person on the other end of the phone knew what was good for him, he would stay away from her.
As the line of passengers began to move, the guy continued to warn his friend about the fear of sexually transmitted diseases. The Great Gatsby no longer held my interest. I wanted to know where Shelly was. Where was the TW?
Singer-songwriter-musician John Legend recently performed a song he had written (“Maxine”) about a woman he was in love with. He was confused when he discovered her out at a club, wearing the dress he had bought her, the necklace he gave her on Valentine’s Day, the shoes that were her birthday gift. There she was, all dressed up, with another man. Legend’s heart-wrenching song was inspired by a tune recorded by Nancy Wilson in 1960, “Guess Who I Saw Today?” about a woman who finds her husband having lunch at a romantic French restaurant – with another woman. Both of these compositions reveal the pain and heartache when infidelity is discovered. In both scenarios, there was no trigger warning. The pain was real.
Life is filled with stories like these. Whether or not we want to know about them, they exist. Thus begins conversations about life.
Perhaps Mary Poppins was right in her rhythmic diagnosis that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” But then again, I caution everyone with this TW: life is not a Disney movie.
Be real. Experience life. Savor the moment. Endure the pain. Enjoy the journey. Conquer the nightmares. Share your story!
Bill Schneider’s previous experience includes a three-decade long career in the music industry accompanied by extensive travel throughout four continents. Prior to joining Etruscan Press, where he serves as managing editor, he resided at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he wrote near the same sand dunes that inspired Harry Kemp, Eugene O’Neill, Norman Mailer and Tennessee Williams. He received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism Magna Cum Laude from Suffolk University. Bill also earned his MA and MFA from the graduate creative writing program at Wilkes University.