NEWS
Trigger warnings: A sad lack of faith in the power of art
22 May 2014
BY PADRAIG REIDY

laughterinthedark

“Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”

So begins Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter In The Dark, a terse, tragic little book. There’s really not much more I can tell you about it, apart from the fact that the “youthful” mistress is uncomfortably so, Albinus says and thinks some quite sexist things about women, and he ends up disabled (and worse).

Perhaps then, in light of recent requests from English Lit students on American campuses that teachers should provide “trigger warnings” for novels that could contain traumatising themes and scenes, this already revealing opening could be rewritten:

“Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster. TRIGGER WARNING: sexism, cis-sexism, borderline paedophilia, violence, ableism.”

Would that be so bad? Clumsy, no doubt, but does it really affect the reader’s experience, or, specifically, the academic learner’s ability to analyse the book? Well, yes, in that it skews one’s expectations, forces one immediately to think “this is a book about misogyny, violence, and disability,” rather than a book about say, the upheaval of interwar Europe, the clash of old and new, or just good old hubris: things Laughter In The Dark are actually about, rather than things that happen in Laughter in the Dark.

The trigger warning has its origins in online forums dedicated to specific topics, and in the backlash against the idea that has happened this week, some commentators have pointed out that this is an imposition by one small community on general society: Jonah Goldberg in the LA Times, for example, unfavourably compared those calling for trigger warnings on campus to Amish people, pointing out that the Amish would prefer not to have to deal with a lot of the modern world, but at least they don’t inflict their desires on other people.

It’s a tempting “who do these people think they are” argument, made all the more so enticing by the intergenerational aspect – pretty much every person I know over the age of 30 finds the “social justice” movement, from which ideas such as trigger warning have sprung from, equal parts infuriating and baffling. It feels like a world of endless taboos and astonishing sincerity, far removed from the heavy irony that, for better or worse, characterised the generation that preceded it.

And they don’t like us much either: writing for Vice last week, Theis Duelund denounced Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, as “slackers [who] nihilistically accept the machine of which they are a part, and can dissect its fundamental facile and evil nature with all the clarity and urgency of a nineteenth-century Romantic poet.”

(If Theis wants to play that game, I’m creeped out by a generation of people for whom dressing up as something out of My Little Pony seems an acceptable subculture for an adult to be involved in).

But changes rarely come from spontaneous mass movements; more often than not, they come from persistent nagging from a minority (or “campaigning” as it’s more kindly called), who eventually convince the rest of us. So to complain that things such as trigger warnings are being foisted upon us by a small group of millennial social justice activists is to avoid the argument about generalised trigger warnings for literature themselves.

The argument being this. Art is an expression of the human condition; our urge to create art, and to consume art, is in large part driven by our need, as social animals, to communicate, to empathise and sympathise.

What that does not mean, however, is that a work of art should, or will, provoke a specific response. Alain De Botton, the writer of philosophically styled self-help books, has recently suggested, through an exhibition he has curated at the Rijksmuseum, that we can use art for self-improvement, implying that specific works inspire specific emotions. It’s a silly, reductive, anti-human argument, implying that there is a correct way to view art, and a correct single message to be taken from it.

Much of the discussion around trigger warnings, and indeed broader discussion of the modern “social justice” movement, is similarly anti-nuance. In the eyes of the online social justice activist, questioning is tantamount to discrimination. This, I believe, is partly generational – asking someone to explain something seems strange to generation just-fucking-Google-it, but as I’ve said, we shouldn’t make age the issue here.

The worry is that in an effort to protect individuals, we risk destroying empathy. The social justice term “allies” has replaced the old fashioned idea of “comrades”. You can support people’s struggle from a distance, “ally” suggests, but you cannot stand with them, because you do not understand the entirety of their experience. It implies a lack of faith in human imagination, in our ability to think outside of ourselves, and in the complexity of the human condition.

So it goes with the trigger warning: there seems little belief here in the idea that a work of fiction could tell us something bigger about the world, could help us understand our fellow beings; or even that reading about experiences that mirror your own may actually help, may make you realise that you are part of something universal. Blood-and-guts fantasy fiction such as Game of Thrones seems to escape opprobrium, perhaps exactly because it’s not seen as being anything to do with the bad things that happen in the real world.

The message and tone of the “trigger warning” suggests a sad lack of faith in the power of art, and, by extension, humanity. We’re capable of better.

This article was posted on May 22, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.
Padraig Reidy

7 responses to “Trigger warnings: A sad lack of faith in the power of art”

  1. Henri Murden says:

    May be an art work in it’s process does not imply trigger warnings. Though artist may comment or give a clue of his process. However modern ways of disposing art works and industrial mass media do imply trigger warnings before hand. Being hopeful of art and for humanity does not spare critical thinking. Age is not a criteria nor is mass appraisal of art works an adequate argument.As for Game of Thrones, this is another mass manipulation blockbuster production undeniably underestimated by our shallow scholars. This is promised to screens worldwide. Mass consumption literature, music, cinema, television and mainstream art bear all trigger warnings of their own. How much does anybody catch of that? May I add how much does journalists and scholars make the everyday man aware that it his own sense of criticism and his freedom of thought which are the targets of those trigger warnings.

  2. Robert Harkess says:

    I understand the issue of trigger warnings to an extent, particularly on things like movies or TV where the stressful event can be displayed without warning – but for a book? Nothing forces the reader to continue reading words as they start to become uncomfortable, and thus I question the usefulness.

  3. Joakim says:

    What’s the difference between trigger warnings and age ratings? To me, trigger warnings are there to give people a choice. Art in the form of books, TV and movies are regularly categorised into genres and age ratings in order to arm people with knowledge so they can make an informed choice about what to consume. I don’t see how trigger warnings are any different.

    • CanYouFlyBobby says:

      The difference between that and an age warning is this:

      The concept of childhood and its restricted responsibilities and abilities are considered universal enough across an age group that an age warning can be useful. There may well be plenty of 16 year olds more mature and better informed than many adults, but an age limit on voting for example is still seen as generally sound enough to be useful. Same with content.
      ie. It can work well enough to be universal.

      Trigger Warnings are basically for adults and works on the assumption that different adults need different protection, or warnings. That is what is being objected to in the article. the lack of empathy this implies.

      This makes them, in my mind, highly impractical in achieving their stated purpose and makes me think other purposes are the real reason for their promotion.

      I’m yet to see the victims. I’m yet to see the constituency who really requires them.

  4. @Isla

    —quote—
    Even a title “Trigger warnings: A sad lack of faith in the power of art” can be felt like a biting disrespect to someone fearing an ‘out- there burden of additional doubts’, which would turn off a person reading the article in full.
    For people to use ‘trigger warnings’ in a generalised term is in my opinion turning the real issue behind trigger warnings into a some kind of filtering system and this in itself is disrespectful.
    —/quote—

    You will notice that the title of this article contains the word “art” and the article speaks of nothing other than art. It does not treat ‘trigger warnings’ in a generalised way. There is a long standing tradition of issuing warnings before or within documentary works and the news along the lines of “the scenes you are about to witness may disturb you”. It was even suggested that this sort of device would have been a suitable remedy allowing the Jesus and Mo portrayal of the prophet Mohammed to be shown on the news without having to censor it for fear of causing offence.

    If a person has experienced trauma that affects her/his ability to cope in ordinary situations, that person needs access to therapy and other forms of help in overcoming this crippling condition. A person who has overcome trauma is called a survivor. A person who cannot read The Great Gatsby without suffering an attack is hardly surviving. It is any individual’s choice whether or not to consume a work of art. Either expect to be transformed somehow (for better or for worse) or choose to lead a monastic life.

    • Isla says:

      My comment about using trigger warnings as a ‘generalised term’ was not towards the article’s point of comment but towards people wanting to use a trigger warning towards novels/art etc – therefore turning the term into a more ‘generalised position’.

      Perhaps from my half asleep state, I could have worded this in a better way.

  5. Isla says:

    I agree with your comments particularly in reference to a novel or a work of art, which can be brilliantly empowering.

    I also realise you are talking in a broader sense, but I would like to add in reference to images of children and factual documentary work.

    A trigger warning before images and or discussions of say child sex abuse, do benefit a viewer/reader who has overcome or is still ‘dealing with’ abuse issues. I don’t think “The worry is that in an effort to protect individuals, we risk destroying empathy” would be the case at all in this respect.

    It is about keeping a conscious regard in this matter, being aware of people in society perhaps dealing with anxiety, depression, ptsd etc and respecting this. It doesn’t take much of an effort having ‘Trigger Warning’ before an article of child sex abuse particularly when additionally confronted with images, as this doesn’t allow a viewer to disregard before deciding whether to read on or not – it’s more a ‘slam bam in your face just reminding you of your nightmares’ kind of thing and can leave a person distressed, maybe even detrimental to her/his well being.

    Even a title “Trigger warnings: A sad lack of faith in the power of art” can be felt like a biting disrespect to someone fearing an ‘out- there burden of additional doubts’, which would turn off a person reading the article in full.

    For people to use ‘trigger warnings’ in a generalised term is in my opinion turning the real issue behind trigger warnings into a some kind of filtering system and this in itself is disrespectful.