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Trigger warning: if you're in favor of trigger warnings, this article might cause you distress

May 21, 2014, at 5:35 PM
 

Before you can pay for that rhinestone-studded leather pair of shorts at Kitson, a high-end celebrity-chic retailer based in Beverly Hills, you must get over the following fright. "PROPOSITION 65 WARNING: Warning: This establishment may carry products which contain chemicals known to the state of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm."

Holy crap! Kitson causes cancer? Like smoking?

Not exactly. In fact, thanks to a conspiracy between overzealous activists and under-thinking voters, almost every business in California has a version of the Prop 65 warning sign somewhere on premises.

Passed in 1986, Prop 65 has a good side: it makes it illegal for businesses to knowingly pollute the water supply. It also has a goo-goo side: it requires businesses to "warn" customers and staff before they "knowingly expose" them to a list of chemicals that have a 1 in 100,000 chance of causing cancer or other types of bodily harm. There are more than 700 different chemicals that, in certain combinations, rise above that threshold, at least according to the state of California. A lot of these chemicals are absorbed into "natural" sources for goods, like plants and soil, before the manufacturers ever get their carcinogenic hands on them, but the law doesn't care. Some people are extraordinarily sensitive to chemical exposure, and no one wants pregnant women to unknowingly subject themselves to unreasonably high concentrations of birth-defect causing chemicals.

But because so many chemicals are now on the list, the signs are everywhere. And if everything can cause cancer, then you can't go anywhere. So, you might as well go everywhere. Reasonable people cannot use Prop 65 to make good choices about where to go based on the potential to be exposed to bad chemicals. This is the public safely equivalent of defining deviancy down.

Prop 65 comes to mind when you read about the "trigger warning" demands that students at some colleges are asking for. If literature or art has the potential to offend someone, then professors would be required to warn students in advance.

Let's put aside the silliness of not treating young adults as individuals with the capacity to adapt to adverse circumstances, to be exposed to direct attacks on their self-esteem, and to learn how to deal with distasteful ideas. The weird logic of trigger warnings would denude the entire idea behind them: by labeling everything potentially disturbing as a priori disturbing, then nothing becomes truly disturbing, and subject matter that truly might cross the hurt-harm barrier would have no claim to be treated specially.

Because speech does have real-world consequences, it often makes sense to considering warning people that they're going to hear and see certain things. People who have been violently attacked, or raped, might appreciate having a chance to avoid reliving an experience. Or they might find it cathartic. But simple decency would suggest that provisioners of art and literature (teachers, movie distributors, television producers) take into account the often startling power of creative work to wound, as well as to heal, inspire, and integrate.

There are circumstances that trigger memories of distinctly stressful situations in all of us, and for us to avoid these often traumatic stressors, we would exist in a ubiquitous warning state where every piece of text we read would be pre-empted by a caution that what we're about to experience might unsettle. Conor Friedersdorf envisions a pre-college warning:

"The world is rife with racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression," the Oberlin course catalog might say. "Students taking courses in the humanities and social sciences should expect to grapple regularly with those phenomena and other fraught, uncomfortable subjects besides, in both course materials and classroom discussions with people who don't share their values, judgments, or assumptions." [The Atlantic]

We lose the ability to make distinctions between phenomena when we treat something uncomfortable as something that must be avoided. This has always been the most vicious consequence of speech codes and the demand for them. They don't protect anyone, in the end; they simply push to the side what people will encounter anyway, assuring that people who work or study under their protection are less prepared to assertively and confidently handle difference. Our bodies and minds are not fragile, until we treat them as fragile.

I don't think that trigger warnings as such encourage "free thought and debate." They presuppose, pre-frame, and pre-distort debate. Fortunately, there seems to be little support for the thick version. In fact, the controversy appears to be a way for left and right to rehash old arguments about political correctness. There is no impending wave of censorship on college campuses.

But if indeed it is a privileged perspective to not be indelibly harmed by experiencing something raw from literature, then that's a privilege I hope to extend to everyone, and not to erase.

 

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