Editorial: ‘Demanding to be regarded as vulnerable infants’

‘Trigger warnings’ are easy to ridicule—but they offer a harbinger of things to come from a generation raised in a protective bubble


Attention: This editorial may contain ideas that are provocative, infuriating or challenging to sensitive readers. Some Maclean’s writers occasionally make use of glib, brusque or discouragingly direct language. This editorial is written in ordinary English prose, an argot of rampaging medieval seafarers that retains faint hallmarks of historical sexism, colonialism, racism and oppression. We apologize in advance for any panic attacks, flashbacks to the fifth century or other traumas that may result from its consumption. 

If everybody’s comfy, we’ll proceed—to talk about “trigger warnings,” an Internet phenomenon that one could say was “spreading into the real world,” if there were a meaningful difference anymore. Trigger warnings began with feminist websites and support groups, as a means of signalling to sensitive readers that they were about to hear a description of abuse, self-harm or violence.

In some circles, the warnings began to become consciously expected—a social norm that would be instantly enforced if overlooked. Gradually, the warnings began to propagate outward into general-interest Internet material.

Now, as a generation that has never lived without the Internet begins to enter university, young American students are trying to bring their protective bubble with them. As the New York Times recently documented, there has been a wave of requests on U.S. college campuses for elaborate and varied “trigger warnings” in the classroom, particularly in English courses, where lecturers would be formally required to advise students of the potentially distressing plot developments in Jude the Obscure or The Great Gatsby. The Times quoted from a draft policy devised at Ohio’s Oberlin College: “Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

The logic of adapting “trigger warnings” to the classroom is not quite clear, in spite of the enthusiasm of advocates. If students can be obligated to read or consume particular material as a requirement for a course, labelling won’t help them avoid the necessity of actually laying eyes on Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion or Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes.

The concealed intention seems analogous to the ’80s craze for child-safety labelling of record albums. Just as LPs given the mark of Cain were made vulnerable to commercial attacks by pressure groups, the deeming of some books and images as potentially harmful to undergraduates opens up a promising new world of political aggression against scholars, syllabi and ideas of canonicity.

The paradox is that it was “concerned parents” who wanted to move against 2 Live Crew. Today, the intended consumers of objectionable content speak for themselves: Millennial students beyond the age of majority are themselves demanding to be regarded as vulnerable infants—nay, that everyone be.

One blog about the ways in which content providers can implement trigger warnings compares the propensity for “being triggered” to a severe food allergy. (“The reaction . . . is just as serious and just as involuntary.”) On this metaphor, the university becomes not a place one enters at one’s own mental and emotional risk— perhaps even partly for the purpose of confronting the unfamiliar and disturbing—but more like a preschool cafeteria or a daycare. And, indeed, why should the logic stop at the edge of the campus? This is unapologetic solipsism. For the moment, the campus trigger-warning movement seems to have attracted more ridicule than support, certainly from tenured academics. But, then, why would a solipsist concern himself with appearing ridiculous? He will, being a solipsist, blame the world for failing to conform to his expectations of it. He is always the hero in his own story— and the keener the sense of victimhood, the greater the heroism. So don’t expect talk of trigger warnings to go away.

But while the idea of trigger warnings in public contexts can be ridiculed and resisted, it is hard to elude the suspicion that it is a harbinger of further things to come from generations raised under circumstances that differ in extreme, even bizarre ways from those enjoyed by their forebears. An older parent of today can hardly help but notice how different his own childhood was, how a contemporary child’s world of digitalness and bandwidth is at once both shrunken and infinite.

The adults who emerge from a world of ubiquitous, continuous connectivity, as we are now seeing, will be our superiors in many ways. They will seem impossibly feeble in others, as Boomers and Gen-Xers perhaps sometimes do to survivors of world war and Depression. And regretting it will not make the slightest difference.


Editorial: ‘Demanding to be regarded as vulnerable infants’

  1. I’ve seen these trigger warning in action during my own days at University. I’m not surprised the usual suspects against free speech, or thoughts and ideas they don’t approve of are causing the little darlings such trauma.

    Here’s a bit of advice for University students, or soon to be University students.

    Trigger warnings:

    1. If you are a male taking a class in “Womyn’s studies”……the trigger warning for your fellow classmates is the fact you have a penis and a deep voice.
    2. If you are a male forced to take a “gender studies” course…..and you have a girlfriend; the fact you are not gay is a trigger warning to your classmates.
    3. If you are a Jewish student at a Canadian University….the trigger warning for many of your potential classmates (and more than a few professors) will be the star of david pendent around your neck.

    4. Trigger warning: If you are an individual who believes in personnel responsibility, ethical behaviour, and you have a moral compass….the trigger warning to your potential classmates will be the fact you vote conservative.

    If all else fails, and you are a “trigger” for every identity group, whiner, radical feminist, or enviro-weenie…….then you may want to go to school somewhere outside of Canada. At least you can be satisfied knowing that the job you take outside of Canada just means you won’t have to support the whiners, deadbeats, and loafers who made you move and pay taxes elsewhere. Because lord knows….they won’t be earning their own money at a real job.

  2. Complain about the over-application of trigger warnings if you must, but they were originally intended for those suffering from PTSD, severe anxiety disorders, and the like, to prevent them from having actual, literal, medical panic attacks or traumatic flashbacks. Let me tell you, have you ever sat next to someone having a panic attack? That person is not learning anything. That person is not absorbing anything. That person is in the midst of a medical crisis. If letting people know what kind of content is in a book, an internet post, or a lecture, so that they can mentally prepare themselves and avoid having a psychological breakdown in class in front of all of their classmates, is soooooo ridiculous to you, I don’t know what to say.

    • That person needs to deal with and get help and maybe shouldn’t be in a situation that triggers any number of stressful situations.

      I’m not trying to be cruel, but there is a reality and clearly THAT person still needs to do a lot of work on themselves to help them deal with day to day life. And maybe university isn’t where he/she should be.

    • PTSD is not a new condition, although it’s existence is newly recognized by many. Probably every Canadian who saw combat in the first two world wars and returned home suffered from PTSD. Not to mention those who managed to live through the devastating Spanish Influenza when many of their loved ones did not. No one was providing trigger warnings for ever book and news reel they were subjected to in university. Yet, they were not having panic attacks. Why? They were used to dealing with adversity and as such had developed strong coping skills and surrounded themselves with good supports. The answer is not to avoid disturbing situations but to learn to cope with them.

      • Hmmm Interesting:

        The folks who want these “trigger warnings” don’t actually believe in personal responsibility. It is much easier to demand that certain materials be banned from the classroom. this after all….is the real goal.

        • Sadly you cannot demand “trigger warnings” in real life because lousy things tend to happen with no warning. Those lousy things include death in the family, job loss and major illness. Learning good coping skills and surrounding yourself with supportive people are two things that are necessary for survival in an unpredictable world. Trigger warnings on literature and movies aren’t really going to help a person achieve long-term success, even if they do have anxiety issues.

    • Cara Z.

      Clearly, “trigger warnings” are something you require.

      If someone is so sensitive, that the curriculum they may be “exposed” to in school causes them stress to the point that they may have a panic attack….then perhaps they should not go to school in the first place. In fact, I would suggest they just sit at home in a bubble and leave the rest of us alone.

      The fact someone has “issues” is not reason enough to deny other students the right to read ANY MATERIAL they want; without having to worry about the sensitive little darlings beside them.

  3. Lots of ignorance in the comments I see.

    This doesn’t deny anyone’s right to free speech or prevent students from reading books.

    PTSD is a serious disorder and anyone saying glib things such as “well just get some help” or “they should just stay home in a bubble” are uninformed idiots. Having visceral flashbacks or a dissociative episode in the middle of a classroom discussion on sexual assault that you might not have expected in an English course is not a joke. Some people will not recover despite extensive therapy and drug treatment.

    This editorial is in incredibly poor taste and overlooks the entire point of the original suggestion. Propping up a strawman argument of “now we can’t discuss racism or violence or classism or whatever else” is ludicrous, especially using the evidence of some random school in Ohio. This isn’t about being overly political correct or attempting to censor a curriculum. It’s a legitimate idea that would be applauded by anyone who has had exposure to mental health patients.

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