I had not heard of a “trigger warning” until I read the New York Times article of 17 May 2014, but I must say the phenomenon doesn’t surprise me because twice in six years as an English Department chair, I have had parents complain about required reading, not because of graphic sex or violence, but because children might find the dénouements of A Hand Maid’s Tale (rising seniors) and Of Mice and Men (rising 8th graders) depressing. “Why,” the mother of the senior whined, “with so many uplifting books out there, do you have to choose such a depressing one?”
In my email I patiently explained that “unlike most movies, great literature provides students with a realistic portrait of the world and endows them with the vicarious experience that comes with experiencing the struggles, triumphs, and, yes, defeats of its characters.” Or, in other words, life is a bitch, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. We all die, almost all of us unpleasantly, our last breaths rattling out as our bodies spew the contents of our bladders and colons in a Dantean horror blast of shit and piss, so experiencing these bummer experiences secondhand might provide us with a wee bit of inoculation.
By the way, the previous sentence should have, according to many college students across the country, been preceded by a trigger warning in case a reader had witnessed a loved one’s dying and suffer from reading the sentence post traumatic stress. A warning like this: “If you have ever witnessed the cessation of life, please don’t read the following sentence because it graphically describes said cessation.”
Students at several universities are demanding that professors attach trigger warnings to their syllabi to protect the hypersensitive from abstract re-exposure to rape, suicide, violence, foul language, misogyny, drug overdoses, traffic accidents, flat tires, unpleasant smelling locker rooms, Barry Manilow concerts . . .
The first five of the above catalogue suggest that we might have to bid adieu to Mr. Faulkner, not to mention Master Will himself. The Times article actually begins with a Rutgers’ student’s complaint that The Great Gatsby needs a warning because “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”
Plus, Tom cries like a baby when he sees a box of dog biscuits.