Trigger warnings: The road less traveled by (because it leads to ignorance and stupidity)

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By Dave Masterson

In an inane and disturbing trend, students at elite colleges and universities across the country have been calling for so-called “trigger warnings” regarding required reading in their course syllabi.

Trigger warnings are essentially content advisories, equivalent to slapping an R or NC-17 rating on a work of literature or other media.

Proponents say the warnings are intended to protect students.

They argue that media dealing in themes of racism or sexual assault, for example, could trigger emotional trauma in students who have experienced similar events in their own lives.

And while most of these proposed warnings have been directed at books, some students want to expand their use to movies, art and even campus protest.

A proposed draft guide for faculty on trigger warnings at Oberlin College reads:

“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 or oppression.

“Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences that you may not expect or understand.”

If you were wondering what might require a trigger warning, look no further than classics of the literary canon.

From To Kill A Mockingbird and Othello to The Color Purple and Night, these books all deal in themes of racism, sexism and violence.

Trigger warning activists would see books like these stamped with content advisories or dropped from course syllabi altogether.

The student government at UC Santa Barbara recently passed a resolution that would allow students to skip class if they felt threatened or offended by the material presented.

In a similar vein, a professor at the University of Alabama recently published a revised edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with all instances of the n-word removed  to  “spare the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.”

Perhaps most provocative was a petition circulating Wellesley College demanding the removal of a lifelike statue of a man in his underwear.

Critics felt it was a potential trigger for victims of sexual assault.

Besides providing slackers an excuse for skipping class, trigger warnings amount to nothing more than veiled censorship.

At their best, trigger warnings are a misguided attempt at political correctness. At their worst, they are a direct assault on intellectual, academic and artistic freedom.

Though they may be well-intentioned, they strike at the very heart of what it means to be educated.

The point of an education is to have your perspective broadened and your ideas challenged.

Ignorance is indeed bliss.  It’s also the root of prejudice, intolerance and injustice.

Anti-Semitism survived for thousands of years on blatant lies about an entire group of people — lies that were believed by those responsible for the Holocaust.

Apologists for American slavery and segregation perpetuate the lie that African Americans were “better off” when they were slaves.

Education is the solution to this ignorance.

Reading Elie Wiesel’s Night should disturb you.

The ubiquity of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn should offend you.

Viewing graphic images of war or other violence should sicken you.

That’s why these works are taught in the first place.

Their power to shock and awaken our intellectual capacities lies in their graphic nature.

A grim and realistic understanding of the past is necessary to ensure atrocities like the Holocaust never happen again.

To be educated is to be an informed, engaged citizen of the world.

Literature, art and media are the tools of the educator.

They are how we learn about issues we have not experienced first-hand.

To censor and sanitize uncomfortable subjects out of fear of traumatizing a few is an egregious and dangerous cop-out.

It suggests that the American college student is so sheltered, immature and intellectually dull that they will not be able to handle an adult analysis of complex issues.

It’s an insult to professors and students alike.

It results from the ridiculous notion that we should be able to avoid whatever makes us uncomfortable.

This avoidance allows the student to wallow in a comfortable and false reality, unchallenged and ignorant of the realities of the world.

Ignorance leads to complacency, which leads to apathy and inaction.

In a future where our generation is quite literally charged with saving the planet from ourselves, is this the kind of student we want to produce? I certainly hope not.

Perhaps these trigger warning activists need a warning of their own.

As Martin Luther King said, “There is nothing in the world more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

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