SUZANNE HARRINGTON: Trigger warnings are cultural infantilism

Trigger warning: This column contains triggers which may trigger you. Like a faulty gun, you might read this and go off with a loud bang. 

We need trigger warnings because we are no longer able to read, look at, listen to, or be around anything that could set us off. 

This is because we are all profoundly traumatised in various ways, and virtually anything can hurtle this trauma to the surface . Seriously. Are you sure you’ll be OK reading this to the end?

The BBC just issued a trigger warning relating to an oil painting from 1599: “Warning — the paintings featured below depict a graphic image”.

A Caravaggio, discovered in a French attic, worth about €120m if authenticated, and featuring a bit of red paint. The only trigger warning should be stupidity, surely, for leaving something that important in an attic for 150 years. And for the BBC’s daft nannying.

The following works of literature have all had trigger warnings requested by students at the University of California: F Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (misogyny), Chinua Achebe’s Thing Fall Apart (racism), Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (suicide), and The Merchant of Venice (anti-Semitism).

Perhaps Tom & Jerry need one too, given how violent they are, and Bugs Bunny, with its mockery of short shotgun-wielding men with speech impediments.

Trigger warnings originate from — of all places — university campuses, where people go to expand their intellect.

Common trigger warnings — and this is by no means the entire list, because this column isn’t long enough — include swearing, rape, abuse, name calling (including “stupid”), drugs, needles, suicide, anything that ends with –ism, pregnancy, birth, death, blood, sex, vomit, dental trauma, spiders, calories, Nazi paraphernalia, and “slimy things”. (Rice pudding? Jelly and custard?)

This isn’t meant to be insensitive to anyone who has ever had a horrible experience. Many of us have. But unless you have recently fled Syria, or live in a North Korean gulag, statistically you are probably all right. So why would we need trigger warnings around things like birth and death? And blood? What about paper cuts? Or periods?

If someone can’t read a piece of literature / engage in discussion / watch filmed material without it triggering some kind of post traumatic stress event, they need help. The content does not need a trigger warning — the individual does. Getting help is good — it’s how we evolve. Slapping trigger warnings all over Caravaggio and Shakespeare is cultural infantilism. Studying history? How are you going to cope with Hitler? Caligula? What about the Bible, with its Mortal Kombat levels of violence?

Being alive may cause distress, given how the world continues to be full of horror. We can’t trigger warn ourselves out of that. Nor should we want to — to live in a world of censorial bubble- wrap is cultural death. And deadly bloody boring.


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