On Trigger Warnings and Literature

by Eva Dunsky, Writing Fellow ’17

As I walked into the Diana last week, a few CAP (Collective Advocacy Project) members recruited me to share my thoughts on trigger warnings. What purpose do they serve? What purpose are they supposed to serve? Do they belong in literature? Why is there such a disconnect between our understanding of what they should do and what they actually do in practice? Although I was in a rush to secure a table upstairs for a writing fellows conference and wanted to grab coffee first, the topic was too good to resist. I grabbed an index card and began to write down my thoughts; which are as follows:

I think we should include trigger warnings in our syllabi. No one wants to be caught by surprise when an upsetting issue arises out of the blue in a core text. By including trigger warnings, students can be aware of what they face and prepare accordingly. The danger, however, is when we cease to read texts because they can be triggering.

Literature is meant to trigger a response. Great writers make us think, make us question, and make us peer inside ourselves and confront the uncomfortable facts that lie at the core of human existence. This can be scary and upsetting, I know—but it is not an oppressive act. Discomfort does not equal oppression. Triggering literature does not equal disrespect for difficult individual experiences. I worry that with the growing emphases on trigger warnings, the list of things that we can’t read (and say and bring up in class) will grow longer and longer. What do you guys think? Let’s discuss.

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