When Trigger Warnings Offend

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Atlantic reader Paula has a similar stance on trigger warnings as the college instructor who was raped:

I was in a literature class when my professor read a poem that was in the perspective of someone jumping off a skyscraper. This was the method my sister used to end her life.

For whatever reason, I couldn’t handle it that day and started seeing things. I left the room to get a cup of coffee and calm down. At the end of class, I went back to ask what the homework was, only to find my professor apologizing profusely for selecting that poem despite knowing what happened to my sister. He said he should’ve at least given me a warning.

I was taken aback. I told him that I chose to take a literature class, and he selected a poem that would teach the lesson best to the whole class. I couldn’t handle it, so that was my own responsibility.

Honestly, since all my professors knew I had mental issues, it was quite refreshing just for once to not be singled out, to be treated like a normal person. I seriously don’t understand why people want trigger warnings.

Another reader agrees:

As a dark-skinned Latino gay male, I am deeply alarmed that this new wave of stifling political correctness has swept college campuses. Such efforts and policies are ostensibly used to “protect” students like me from “offense.” But these people do not realize that they’re doing the very thing they accuse the “victimizers” and “oppressors” of doing—condescending to people like me.

This new political correctness simply crystallizes the ugly paternalism the left sometimes inflicts on minorities.

They make me into a one-dimensional caricature of someone so fragile and innocent that my psyche must be protected at all costs. Worse yet, they assume that people like me aren’t mature enough to see the difference between “microaggressions” that are unintentional and thoroughly harmless, and the ones that are harmful.  They also assume that people like me aren’t capable of withstanding and countering the latter. We most certainly are. I’m a capable adult who can deftly navigate the arrows of negativity and discrimination aimed at the LGBT and Latino communities without my nannies protecting me.

As to the “trigger warnings” for provocative works of art and literature, this is also a very sad state of affairs. I tend to think the more provocation, the better.

Some of the best works of art, in my opinion, are those of Francis Bacon and Egon Schiele because they leave me with heightened anxiety. I was especially disconcerted to read that Mrs. Dalloway, one of the best novels ever written in the English language, had been given the trigger warning treatment at Rutgers. I read that book for the first time during the depths of a depression that lasted months. But despite the difficulties, I kept reading because the very mental state that that novel explored was the one I was experiencing. Reading that novel while in that frame of mind was one of the most eye-opening and marvelously creative things I have ever done. So to deny college students such life-enhancing engagement with art simply to “protect” them from their own feelings is a travesty.

I hope there is a thorough and sustained backlash against this new political correctness. I agreed with the general goals of the PC movement of the 1980s and 1990s; there needed to be more points of view from historically marginalized peoples in classroom discussions and materials. But I am in deep opposition to this new and more frightening iteration.

What do you think? Email hello@theatlantic.com. The authors of the cover story, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, will be responding to critical emails from readers soon.

(Image via Dan Savage)