The Weaponization of Trigger Warnings: Be Careful What You Wish For
Biggy Biggins saw it coming as clear as a lightning strike rending black clouds: The weaponization of trigger warnings.
Biggy Biggins’ first encounter with trigger warnings was in a university class he took after retirement. The instructor announced he would not tolerate students being uncomfortable in class and we were to beware of what we say so as not to affront students who had experienced trauma. Examples he gave were such topics as racial slurs, descriptions of rape and incest, and chauvinisms of different sorts. Fair enough, Biggy Biggins thought to myself, but he wondered how we were to know if a classmate was previously traumatized, and who had experienced what kind of trauma? The prof. explained we would be required to give trigger warnings that unsettling topics might be discussed, giving time for the prof. to determine if the class should consider the topic, and any past victims time to decide if they stayed for the discussion or would temporarily absent themselves.
After class Biggy Biggins thought about the trigger warning discussion, since this was the first he’d heard of such a thing. Questions nagged him:
1. Other than the prof’s topic examples, how was Biggy Biggins to know what deserved a trigger warning? How about discussions about attacks on gays, or home invasions and other violent crimes? How about non-violent crimes like fraud? Or difficult child births, war, or the death of loved ones, or even vehicle accidents? These all are trauma filled.
2. What kind of trigger warning could Biggy Biggins give without the warning itself becoming a trigger? as in, “I’d like to talk about a story that involves rape.”
3. Will the student temporarily leaving the class be responsible for the class content? If a rape trigger warning is given and a student leaves the classroom, won’t the offended student find that in itself traumatizing, to say nothing of being potentially outed as a rape victim?
4. Can students stop a class discussion by saying they are “uncomfortable” with what is being discussed? Will they be required to say why they are uncomfortable so a decision can be made on whether or not to continue? Won’t any discussion of why a student may feel uncomfortable itself be trigger? Or will a student simply say he is uncomfortable and shut down discussion?
Biggy Biggins second encounter with trigger warnings involved an article he found on Medium, and a group he belongs to on Facebook.
The article was entitled “Sex and Punishment and Politics” and Biggy Biggins posted a link to it in a liberal Facebook group called “Informed and Inclusive of _____County.” Biggy Biggins discovered the article never got posted and when he asked the group administrator why, he was told he had to include a trigger warning, or “TW” as the administrator called it.
Biggy Biggens responded that the article’s title was itself a “TW” since what else could something called Sex and Punishment and Politics be about other than sex and punishment and politics.
The administrator didn’t directly respond to Biggy Biggins, but the article eventually got posted.
Finally, Biggy Biggins read officials at the Scottish University of the Highlands and Islands (cool name) issued a “TW” for Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea because it involved killing fish, and that “TWs” were issued by Glasgow University regarding “violent material” in the following Brothers Grimm stories: Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood.
Naturally the right-wing press had a field day mocking “Liberal Woke” culture, and properly so. Studies have shown that trigger warnings don’t work, with some researchers reporting that “TWs” themselves re-traumatize the people they were meant to protect.
Biggy Biggins realized what happened in the Scottish universities could be delt with as cases of overexuberant officials until he read about Florida and other states where Republicans are legalizing trigger warning, i.e., investing trigger warnings with the mantle of law. These laws prohibit teaching about such topics as slavery violence, Native American extermination, and gender studies, claiming (you guessed it) teaching these topics makes white people “uncomfortable.”
Now, Biggy Biggins wasn’t born yesterday, and he knows laws have for centuries been used to proscribe teaching of all sorts of things, such as the Bible, evolution, and (most recently in Russia) teaching anything about the Ukrainian war that conflicts with official government narratives. In other words, authoritarians don’t need the trigger warnings arguments to justify their actions, but development of the “TW” concept sure hands them a dandy club with which to beat academics and other trigger warning supporters. After all, they will argue, if we can’t broach topics that make minorities and women and LGBTQ folk “uncomfortable,” why should we tolerate making white people uncomfortable? Thus squaring the circle by turning perpetrators into victims.
I asked Biggy Biggins what he thought about “Sex and Punishment and Politics” and he said it made him uncomfortable.
“What about it made you uncomfortable?” I said.
“Well,” Biggy Biggins said, “among other things it talked about masturbation.”
“Masturbation!” I said. “Who has ever been traumatized by masturbation?”
“When I was a kid,” Biggy Biggins said, “a Catholic priest masturbated in front of me.”