Warning: May cause distress

One of the latest fads that has spread across American colleges and universities is something called “trigger warnings”. Trigger warnings, in their formal definition, are statements, most often placed at the start of works of literature, that alert the reader that they may contain potentially “distressing” material. 

Strange as it may seem, these trigger warnings are being demanded by American college students on texts or materials they believe can or will cause emotional distress. Demands are even being made for trigger warnings on classic literature considered to be masterpieces and long appreciated by generations of students. At the University of California in Santa Barbara, students requested that teachers apply trigger warnings to The Great Gatsby, the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald which is also taught at ASL. The supposed unbearable descriptions of suicide, domestic abuse, and violence in its text might unduly disturb students. Really? In a society where we are subjected to video footage of beheadings and other atrocities, are the students at the University of California so delicate and sensitive that they require a trigger warning lest the rough prose of The Great Gatsby cause them irreparable harm?

Similarly, students at Oberlin College and Rutgers University demanded trigger warnings for Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (for alleged racism) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (for alleged colonialism and religious persecution). At Rutgers University, students went so far as to give their professors an ultimatum: Demanding that they be excused from reading certain materials or assume responsibility for the severe stress they would be provoking. The pathetic compromise was trigger warnings. But doesn’t this seem like a short step away from banning certain books altogether?

It wasn’t that long ago when I remember how as a child I couldn’t see this or that movie because it was inappropriate. But now it appears that as adults, college students want to be so infantilized as to be protected from books.

In another trend at elite American universities, students are demanding that ideas they disagree with should not and cannot be heard by anyone at all. Students have literally shouted down or caused their universities to disinvite speakers whose views they do not agree with. Student protests have always been common on college campuses and is freedom of speech in action. But students who arrogantly believe it is their self-appointed right to prevent anyone at all from listening to an invited speaker are not exercising freedom of speech, they are denying it. For example last year, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was invited to speak at Brandeis University. Ayaan Hirsi is a women’s rights activist highly regarded by many who often criticize Islam for its treatment of women. Under pressure from a number of highly vocal students, Brandeis rescinded its award of an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi, claiming that they were not aware of the remarks she made about Islam. The explanation itself was laughable. First they believe she is worthy of an honorary degree and next she is not even fit to set foot on campus? The truth is Brandeis caved in to pressure from students and outside groups, placing political correctness over freedom of speech.

But trigger warnings and disinvites are step-children of an even wider phenomenon, which is the excessive and even hypersensitivity of so many people today. Often this even takes comical and unintended consequences such as the recent incident involving Sean Penn at this year’s Oscars. As Sean Penn looked at the envelope in his hands at the Oscars, about to hand the award for Best Picture to his fellow film director and good friend Alejandro Inarritu, Penn uttered “Who gave this [expletive] a green card?” Within hours, a frenzy of outraged viewers took to social media, calling Penn “racist” and his comment “offensive.” One wrote “the struggles people endure for immigration justice aren’t punchlines.” No, they’re not. But people should be able to distinguish between actually offensive remarks made with malicious intent and remarks obviously made in jest. Inarritu himself called Penn’s joke “hilarious”, and the two have known each other for more than a decade.

When we treat grave issues with the same seriousness that we treat, for example, Penn’s off-hand remark, we effectively undermine and trivialize real problems. When we start demanding trigger warnings on books, how far are we from banning those books altogether? The truth is all of this nonsense is ultimately absurd self-indulgence. While some think these attitudes and actions often masquerade as ‘tolerant,’ they are anything but.

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