During the controversy surrounding the 1995 film Kids, I remember seeing my Uncle Eamonn on television defending the movie's release. While he wanted an R instead of an NC-17 rating, he did warn that "This movie isn't for kids." The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave the film an NC-17 rating because of its "explicit sex, language, drug use and violence involving children." My uncle's objection was not based on his desire to get kids to see Kids; the problem was that movie theaters would not show NC-17 films. This amounted to de facto censorship because many people would not be able to see the film and it would fail to make any money.
One remarkable feature of this controversy is how unremarkable Kids would be today. While its ability to shock still holds up, it now exists in a media landscape with such a proliferation of explicit sex, language, drug use, and violence that it would be hard to imagine its release making national news.
This observation seems to be at odds with a slew of recent essays that tell us that the current generation of college students are fragile, protected, and sheltered. Judith Shapiro calls this phenomenon the "self-infantilization" of students. Laura Kipnis worries about how students "cocooned from uncomfortable feelings" will deal with the harsh realities of the real world. Judith Shulevitz reports that students in the past were "hardier souls" who would have resisted intrusive supervision:
Only a few of the students want stronger anti-hate-speech codes. Mostly they ask for things like mandatory training sessions and stricter enforcement of existing rules. Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like.One feature of this current climate are requests for "trigger warnings" on course syllabuses. These warnings alert students to content that could cause psychological harm. A trigger warning is not unlike the MPAA's movie ratings. Trigger warnings do not for the most part require material to be removed from the course; they alert students to some themes and give them the choice about whether they want to expose themselves to this content. It is this request for an exemption that feels like a kind of de facto censorship to professors. It offends our sense of free inquiry and the necessity of confronting difficult subject matter.
Concerns about overprotection are not all that new. Many generations have lamented that kids today are spoiled and need to toughen up. For this reason, I tend to be suspicious of theories about generational essences. Such theories often draw heavily on nostalgic recollections of youth and tend to generalize about an entire era based on personal experiences.
Nevertheless, trigger warnings on college syllabuses are a novel development that asks for an explanation. I wonder, however, whether we can do a better job of analysis than we find in jeremiads against kids today. My goal here is not to defend or criticize trigger warnings, but to try to offer some more satisfying explanation about what is going on.
In some ways, Michelle Goldberg points to a key issue when she observes that trigger warnings cannot be explained by increased levels of sexual conservatism on college campuses. It could be the case that increased protections feel necessary when it is less clear what rules should limit human behavior. As she writes,
The politics of liberation are an uneasy fit with the politics of protection. A rigid new set of taboos has emerged to paper over this tension, often expressed in a therapeutic language of trauma and triggers that everyone is obliged to at least pretend to take seriously.I am less convinced that this is such an uneasy fit. The politics of protection could very well grow out of the politics of liberation. We find similar relationships between liberation and protection when people improvise rules to deal with novel social interactions. This is particularly evident in the habits of consumers of social media.
I would suggest that calling for a trigger warning on a syllabus is something akin to blocking someone on Twitter or Facebook. Blocking is not a sign of fragility, necessarily. It is a way of exercising some measure of control over a chaotic flow of information, a mechanism for dealing with the many images and interactions that show up on a screen without warning. If someone chooses to show graphic violence, or threatens you, or makes a racist comment, you can block them. This doesn't infringe on their legal rights to say whatever they please, but it does assert your right not to have to deal with them. Blocking works differently from censorship. It does not seek to control public access to information but tries instead to protect against potential exposure.
While many people have never personally blocked anyone, it would be impossible to consume media without blocking in some form or another. It would be psychologically exhausting, and at times even personally dangerous, to expose yourself to everyone and everything that was out there. This could be what people have in mind when they invoke PTSD triggers. PTSD language vexes many professors who point to some cases in which those asking for trigger warnings have not themselves experienced the trauma they seek to protect themselves from. Psychological language might make more sense if we understand blocking not as a response to past experiences (although it can be), but as a mechanism to protect yourself from new ones.
To grow up with social media is to learn blocking as a habitual method of dealing with negative information. A more persuasive explanation for trigger warnings, then, is that we are seeing a clash between some people raised on the internet and some people who were educated in a culture of books, feature films, magazines, and television programs. Reading a book requires sustained attention to material in which we expect to occasionally encounter objectionable material. This is part of what gives books their moral complexity and ambiguity, and it is the ability to deal with this kind of complexity that professors see as a crucial feature of education.
While I cannot speak for others of middle age, I can say that I didn't learn blocking when I was a kid because the blocking was done for me. What I have in mind is not legal censorship but the work done by institutions like publishers, editors, or organizations like the MPAA. While Americans prize free speech, it is easy to overlook all of the forms of regulation and protection implicit in the production and distribution of mass media.
Furthermore, I had little access to forms of media in which anyone at anytime could choose to gratuitously insult or threaten me. What this means is that many people do not distinguish between intellectual and physical danger in the way that seems self-evident to professors. Understanding that texts are things that can cause you physical harm if you are not careful leads to a different experience of reading.
To be clear, my purpose here is not to defend or attack trigger warnings. I'm just hoping to offer what might be a better explanation for what is going on. It is also important to keep in mind that most students do not ask for trigger warnings. Not everyone develops the same blocking habits. While it is impossible to quantify sensitivity, my guess is that many students are less shockable than ever. Therefore, telling kids today to toughen up misses the point. Trigger warnings are not a symptom of an over-protected generation. They are the exact opposite of this. Trigger warnings are demands of people who have come of age in a mediated world with very few protections and have responded by learning to protect themselves.