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.