I do not cotton much to the concept of “trigger warnings”. I have enough trouble with movie ratings to spend time worrying about the delicate sensibilities of undergraduates making a social movement out of victimology. If you are enrolled in college, taking a literature course and you can’t figure out that Huckleberry Finn is going to contain some racist language or that Tolstoy might be a bit of a sexist, or that stories and histories of war will contain rapine and pillage, well, then, perhaps you are enrolled in the wrong programs. Perhaps auto mechanics or dental hygiene (both incredibly helpful, useful, needed, and lucrative professions) would be safer topics than immersing yourself in the metaphysical exploration of the world of ideas and the history of civilization.
I find trigger warnings to be not unlike the baseball player who complains that people are throwing things at her. In other words, what did you expect? If you are exploring the world, literature, history, the condition of human relations, get ready to encounter some unpleasant stuff. We are a brutal, unpleasant species who does despicable things to each other in the pursuit of power, religious domination, resource allocation, marital relations, parenting, and well, ‘because we can”, I guess. Sometimes there isn’t any explanation. That certainly doesn’t make it right and it does not in any way, shape or form excuse the behavior, it only deems such behavior inevitable. The only trigger warnings you need are summed up in “bad shit happens” and “life ain’t fair”. If your parents have not somehow passed along that wisdom before you got to college, let me be the first. There, you have been warned. I don’t like the fact that this is the way the world works, but it IS the way it has worked for the period of recorded history, best we can tell.
I am not insensitive to those who have experienced trauma. I can fully understand how reading about similar trauma would be upsetting and make you revisit terrible, awful memories. But that is life. That is the process of grief. If you are to grow to be a functioning adult, you will have to deal with those memories. If you can’t, you become less than whole, incapacitated.
Yes, if you are African-American, no doubt that reading about slavery is painful. It should be. If you are a victim of sexual assault, it must be terrifying. If you are a Jew and your grandparents survived or did not survive the Holocaust, it is truly awful and upsetting. Or an Armenian who escaped the genocide of the Turks. As well if a family member was murdered or if you were in a horrific traffic accident, or if you lost a sister in a plane crash, or if you survived cancer, or if you ever heard your doctor tell you that “you have no options.” The list of possibilities for terrible, awful, upsetting memories is, unfortunately, endless. This is life. It may be a bit pretentious and equally a bit out of context, but Hobbes is right… “The life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” We do the best we can.
To warn of all the unpleasant possibilities is to denude all news and literature and art of meaning. To attempt to be selective and pick priorities amounts to a competition of suffering that is, perhaps, a cure worse than the disease.
My suggestion is to speak out. I know, it is easy to say and horribly difficult to do. When Huck (or better yet, your neighbor, colleague, or classmate) uses the N-word, speak out. Tell your classmates that this hurts you, it makes you feel bad. If you are a victim of sexual assault, help others understand how you feel and what they can do to prevent this from happening to others. If your grandparents perished in the Holocaust, tell you story so that we can collectively try to prevent it from happening again. If your sister died in a plane crash, remember her but don’t let that stop you from traveling.
In short, speak out. Act. Let your friends and family know how you feel. Engage with others. Make something happen. Do not suffer in silence and do not try to isolate yourself from the real world.
The clear majority of us will understand, engage, and try to be helpful. The hell with those who don’t. Screw them.