Speaking as one whose high school gym teacher once called him a “textbook private school turd,” I feel confident in reflecting on the strange, privileged, frustrating, enlightening world that is private education. As a teenager, I was lucky enough to attend classes whose enrollments usually hovered between 5 and 15 students. Above all else, this made classes personal: My English teacher knew what books I had read, my math teacher knew where my strengths in calculus were, and my art history teacher gave me a cat that she found outside of her farm. This cultivated students’ identities, but also their narcissism, and their insistence that their personal experience deserved priority over topics ranging from the existential musings of Virginia Woolf to the causes of the Peloponnesian War. I have heard a student explain her grandparents’ financial situation to try and discount the economic policies of John Maynard Keynes and a 20-year-old film major explain through anecdotal stories about his siblings why Dostoevsky got the brotherhood dynamic completely wrong. One visionary sophomore even shared with my history class that, because of her personal beliefs about involuntary human confinement, she thought Plato should never have chained those poor people up in that cave.
So when trigger warnings arrived on the scene and into the news in the past year, it seemed just as much a question of student identity in the classroom as that of appropriate care for trauma victims.
Much has been made over the last six months of trigger warnings, explicit cautions against “shocking” material that could supposedly invoke a traumatic response particularly in victims of sexual assault or child abuse. The discourse kicked into high gear late this April, when a Columbia Spectator article argued that Ovid’s Metamorphoses “contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom,” and should subsequently be flagged with a warning, allowing students to act accordingly. Naturally, this set off a wave of controversy. Some came to the writers’ side, calling for similar consideration of students’ supposedly difficult positions. Others criticized the article for reducing literary masterworks and over-pampering students, with one Wall Street Journal writer asking, “Do you wish to be known as the first generation that comes with its own fainting couch? Did first- and second-wave feminists march to the barricades so their daughters and granddaughters could act like Victorians with the vapors?”
What is perhaps most frustrating about the debate is that the pro trigger-warning camp is set on billing itself as the sole bulwark against sexual trauma. When the need for trigger warnings is questioned, detractors are asking, “Why do you think this form of protection for victims is necessary?” Yet in response to this, trigger-warning proponents take outrage, as if they have been asked, “Why do you think rape survivors need any form of protection?” The question at hand is not whether we should strive to improve the lives of sexual assault victims or not, but how we should do so, and trigger-warning proponents seem to believe that theirs is the only solution.
This phenomenon speaks to a larger problem in the world of issue advocacy, especially in cases of sexual assault and victims’ rights. Naturally, some victims of assault become involved in the fight against the kind of abuse they experienced, and even more will find some sort of peripheral voice in anything from awareness movements to special interest groups. This makes sense—the fight against sexual assault will be in part led by its victims—and it can potentially lead to a wider, clearer picture of the problems which these victims face.
This is all well and good. But when we equate victim with expert and expert with advocate, solutions become poorly formulated because ideas that a small group of people want to implement, such as trigger warnings, become too founded on personal experience. Normalizing one’s own experience as a victim and calling it everyone’s experience as a victim is not empowering individual experience as much as it gives priority to whatever individual can make the most noise. The Columbia Spectator advocates of trigger-warnings claim to speak for victims of assault, but they are inadvertently speaking just as much for predominantly white, predominantly wealthy 20-year olds living in Upper Manhattan as well. It gives a privilege to a line of thinking that has not been unanimously agreed upon, and legitimizes it by calling personal experience ubiquitous experience.
Perhaps this argument has a devil’s advocate quality about it. After all, it hardly seems we are in danger of societally giving sexual assault victims “too many rights.” But do trigger warnings help victims, or are they another venture in pampering the young, white, wealthy, and pseudo academic? Do all triggers get this warning, or just the genteel ones behind the walls most thickly covered in ivy?