Thursday, May 29, 2014

Trigger Warnings

Recently much has been made about select universities' attempts at establishing trigger warnings, or alerts about course material that may contain sexual content, violence, racism, or anything that might affect someone who has been a victim of a crime, assault or has post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Reaction has been swift and primarily negative. Robert and Araz Shibley claim that 18 year olds are legally adults and should suck-it-up. Enough with coddling they say in their article, Campus Trigger Warnings Threaten Free Speech And Treat Students Like Children,

This pair of writers is really, really upset about the continued coddling going on. They assert anything can be a trigger: a sound, a song, a smell, how exactly can professors become mind-readers? If someone has a mental health issue, they should be under a doctor's care, a university can't take responsibility for students' reactions to everything. That's about the only point I agree with, and judging by the strident tone they take, I venture to say these two have probably not suffered any life-altering trauma.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington is a trigger place, and on a recent visit there, swarms of school-age children were present. Interestingly enough, two teenagers were laughing near one of the exhibits. I doubt their laughter had anything to do with the actual material being shown, but a museum docent approached them and offered them the opportuniy to speak with a Holocaust survivor they had on staff. They stopped laughing.

Maybe those critical of the need for trigger warnings at universities have an issue with the set-up of the new 9-11 Memorial museum? It is most certainly a trigger place, and warnings abound. Maybe they think the whole museum shouldn't even exist? Or perhaps the small areas set near key points to allow visitors overcome by emotion to gracefully step away from the crowds and have a few private moments of grief should be eliminated?

I have not suffered a life-altering trauma, but I have people close to me that have. A friend told me her grandson was playing with a teddy bear her late husband had purchased for him. Her husband had died suddenly, barely fifty, and the sight of the stuffed toy, five years after his death brought her to her knees. Her reaction frightened her young grandchild, but no one is suggesting that teddy bears come with warning labels.  

We are warned about the after effects of riding on roller coasters, spilling hot beverages, and airbags. These warnings alert us (adults, Robert and Araz) to possible danger. They are meant as precautions so we can be prepared. A trigger warning is simply a device for preparation, no one is playing around with our free speech, so relax everyone, please.

Angela Lee Duckworth gives an interesting TED talk about raising kids with grit. In it she states that the secret to success is determined as much by intellect as grit--the ability to persevere in one's goals, long term. Anyone who is a survivor of a traumatic event and still wakes up every day to start anew and has the wherewithal to attend college and make something of themselves has grit. Allowing these people the chance to prepare themselves in the best way that they can so as not to be overcome by emotion in front of their peers is  only fair and decent.


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