For those who have not yet caught up with it, in the academic world the phrase “trigger warning” means alerting students to books that might “trigger” deleterious emotional effects. Should a Jewish student be asked to read “Oliver Twist” with its anti-Semitic caricature of Fagin, let alone “The Merchant of Venice,” whose central figure is the Jewish usurer Shylock? Should African-American students be required to read “Huckleberry Finn,” with its generous use of the “n-word,” or “Heart of Darkness,” which equates the Congo with the end of rational civilization? Should students who are ardent pacifists be made to read about warfare in Tolstoy and Stendhal, or for that matter the Iliad? As for gay and lesbian students, or students who have suffered sexual abuse, or those who have a physical handicap . . . one could go on.
Pointing out the potentially damaging effects of books began, like so much these days, on the Internet, where intellectual Samaritans began listing such emotionally troublesome books on their blogs. Before long it was picked up by the academy. At the University of California at Santa Barbara, the student government suggested that all course syllabi contain trigger warnings. At Oberlin College the Office of Equity Concerns advised professors to steer clear of works that might be interpreted as sexist or racist or as vaunting violence.
Movies have of course long been rated and required to note such items as Adult Language, Violence, Nudity—ratings that are themselves a form of trigger warning. Why not books, even great classic books? The short answer is that doing so insults the intelligence of those supposedly serious enough to attend college by suggesting they must not be asked to read anything that fails to comport with their own beliefs or takes full account of their troubled past experiences.