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The Futility of Trigger Warnings
British universities are repeating the mistakes of their American counterparts.
Just days into the new year, Scottish papers reported that the University of Aberdeen had slapped a trigger warning on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, a classic children’s novel about a place where nobody ever grows up. The reason: the book’s “odd perspectives on gender” may prove “emotionally challenging” to some adult undergraduates, even though it contains “no objectionable material.”
Yes, you read that right—a children’s book now comes with a trigger warning for adults. What’s more, Peter Pan is not the only children’s book to come with an advisory at Aberdeen. Among others are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Last year the university put a trigger warning on Beowulf, the epic poem considered one of the most significant works in the English literary canon, for its depictions of “animal cruelty” and “ableism.” The year before that, the university pushed lecturers to issue content warnings for a long list of topics including abortion, miscarriage, childbirth, depictions of poverty, classism, blasphemy, adultery, blood, alcohol and drug abuse.
Aberdeen is not the only British university following in the steps of American counterparts. The University of Derby issued trigger warnings for Greek tragedies. The University of Warwick put a content advisory on Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd for “rather upsetting scenes concerning the cruelty of nature and the rural life.” At the University of Greenwich, the death of an albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 18th century poem, was deemed “potentially upsetting” and stuck with a content notice.
This trend is alarming for several reasons. First, it runs counter to research on the effects of such advisories. As early as 2020 the consensus, based on 17 studies using a range of media, was that trigger warnings do not alleviate emotional distress, and they do not significantly reduce negative affect or minimize intrusive thoughts. Notably, these advisories, which were at least initially introduced out of consideration for people suffering from PTSD, “were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas.”
On the contrary, researchers found that trigger warnings actually increased the anxiety of individuals with the most severe PTSD, prompting them to “view trauma as more central to their life narrative.” A recent meta-analysis of such warnings found the same thing: the only reliable effect was that people felt more anxious after receiving the warning. The researchers concluded that these warnings “are fruitless,” and “trigger warnings should not be used as a mental health tool.”
But beyond the fact that trigger warnings don’t work in general, there is something particularly perverse about appending them to works of literature and art.
Engaging with art is not simply a matter of extracting information or following the storyline. Rather, as Salman Rushdie once put it, literature allows us “to explore the highest and lowest places in human society… to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart.” Literature cultivates an aesthetic sensibility, a deeper sense of empathy, and allows you to be taken out of yourself in a way that only art can do. Joyce Carol Oates characterizes it as “the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
In other words, literature is transformative precisely because it has the ability to shock and surprise. It can jolt us out of complacency, force us to contend with the uncertain, the strange and even the ugly. For Franz Kafka, the only books worth reading are the ones that “wound or stab us.” He observed:
If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?... we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like suicide. A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us…
Contending with “the frozen sea” opens the door for the kind of contemplation that is necessary for growth. When a classic such as Beowulf comes with “animal cruelty” and “ableism” on the cover, a piece of literature that offers us a unique window into the traditions and values of medieval Anglo-Saxons is devalued, and simply becomes a text riddled with “problematic” themes.
I can’t help but think that something is broken when universities, the very institutions entrusted with helping young minds mature, infantilize students by treating them as fragile creatures. What accounts for this shift?
Students across Britain seem to be in favor of trigger warnings. According to a survey published by the Higher Education Policy Institute last year, 86% of students support trigger warnings (up from 68% in 2016). More than a third think instructors should be fired if they “teach material that heavily offends some students” (up from just 15% in 2016).
Sadly, it appears that universities in Britain have fallen prey to the kind of corporate logic that is already firmly entrenched in the United States. This growing managerial approach with its customer-is-always-right imperative is increasingly evident in university policies.
Indeed, it explicitly underpins Aberdeen’s decision to use trigger warnings. As the University spokesperson explained: “Similar to the way that content warnings are routinely applied by broadcasters, students are informed about the content of the texts and, as critically mature adults, they are empowered to make their own decision about which text to read. Our guidelines on content warnings were developed in collaboration with student representatives and we have never had any complaints about them—on the contrary students have expressed their admiration for our approach.”
But university is not a television or radio show. Far from it. It’s a place where students come for an education. A model where faculty and administrators pander to student sensitivities—to the extent that it starts undermining the mission of the university—would be comical were it not so serious. If we fail to equip our students with the skills and sensibilities necessary to cope with life, we are doing them a great disservice.
When adult university students ask for trigger warnings for children’s literature, we as a society should realize that somewhere along the line, we lost the plot. Instead of coddling our students we should be asking why they feel so emotionally brittle. Might it be that their fragility is the result of limited exposure to what constitutes the human condition and the range of human experience? Is shielding them and managing their experience of art and literature not just exacerbating their sense of vulnerability?
Perhaps, in the end, what they need is unmediated, warning-free immersion in more literature, not less.
A version of this piece was originally published on February 17, 2023 by Persuasion.