Of all the books I was assigned to read for school growing up, perhaps my favorite was To Kill a Mockingbird. My ninth grade honors English class was scheduled to read and analyze this novel a few chapters at a time over the course of several weeks — but I plowed through it in a matter of days. At the time, I strongly identified with Scout; even now, I think she is one of American literature’s finest portrayals of an Odd making her way through childhood. I also appreciated – and continue to appreciate – the classically liberal, Christian values that animate the story. Most people remember Atticus’ honorable choice to defend a black man in a criminal case even though, in the 1930’s segregated South, he was sure to lose because that’s what the Hollywood adaptation focuses on — but beyond that, the novel is about the dignity of the individual and the importance of recognizing the intrinsic humanity of all of our neighbors even if they are different, behave in unpleasant ways or hold to false views. Tom Robinson’s plight is only one part of the story.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a seminal work that, I feel, all American students should read. But if certain radical feminists have their way, teachers who intend to discuss this novel in their classes will have to slap the following warning on their syllabi:
Trigger Warning: Racism, Rape, and Violence Against Children.
Further, said teachers may also be forced to permit students to skip the assignment and the accompanying class discussions if they claim emotional distress.
You may think I’m kidding, but this is already happening on certain college campuses. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, students recently passed a resolution urging campus officials to make trigger warnings mandatory for all classes. Supporters of policies like this claim that such alerts will protect students suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from content that might activate disabling symptoms. But as experts have noted, PTSD doesn’t always work so logically. Sufferers can be triggered by stimuli that have no intrinsic connection to their trauma whatsoever — like, for example, a certain song on the radio, the smell of a certain cologne, or the sound of the shower running. Even the word “rape” poses no predictable danger; one survivor of sexual assault may react very negatively to a particular discussion of rape while another may have no reaction at all. Because each individual reacts to trauma differently, therefore, there can be no rational basis for issuing warnings. So what is likely to happen? Certain works – and certain topics – will gradually become verboten as professors scramble to accommodate every complaint, no matter how trivial and dishonest said complaints might be. After all, there will be no way to prove that a warning is or is not needed. We will only have the word of the people making the demands.
And yes — many claims of trauma are invalid. I seriously doubt there were that many ladies at Wellesley College who suffered debilitating flashbacks upon viewing a certain controversial sculpture of a nearly naked man. I think what really happened is that a number of women at the college were offended by the sculpture and found it convenient to abuse the concept of PTSD to demand its removal. Likewise, I don’t believe there are many students at Oberlin College who are so mentally fragile that reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart will send them into a hyperventilating panic. I do think many students might be angered or upset – Achebe’s novel does deal with racism, colonialism, and other difficult subjects – but these are healthy emotions, not a cause for informal censorship.
And even if you do have a legitimate disorder, demanding that sweeping regulations be passed to accommodate you is an ultimately Sisyphean endeavor. Because I was evidently born with a bizarrely wired brain, I have trouble filtering out certain sensations — and in some cases, this inability to filter causes psychological symptoms that do interfere with my daily functioning. But how crazy would it be if I demanded that Congress pass laws outlawing clothing tags, gum or noisy keyboards? No — it is my responsibility to remove myself from stimuli that trigger me, whether than means ripping out offending tags, going to a different room, or using headphones and a white noise app to block things out. And trust me, I know first hand that this is a difficult principle to live up to in real life. It is, however, more practical to control your own behavior than to attempt to control everyone and everything else.
Overall, I think this trigger warning fad is another attempt at a feminist power grab. As I suggested above, the mental illness ploy is a delightfully effective way to manipulate people into accepting politically correct standards they wouldn’t accept otherwise because no one wants to be responsible for another’s mental breakdown. But we should challenge the PTSD facade and call the whole trigger warning concept out for what it is: another illiberal way to police speech and artistic expression.