Nathalie Camerlynck

Trigger warnings aren’t about vulnerability


The term ‘trigger warning’ has met societal pushback. To many, it indicates millennial weakness. This is certainly not the case.



In a talk given some weeks ago at the University of Sydney, a (very boomer) professor of English lamented millennial vulnerability, exemplified by trigger warnings. He expressed longing for his own counter-cultural heyday. “Shock me, baby!”, he said, doing what I take to be jazz hands. Shock me, baby. That phrase stuck in my head.

I thought about the undergraduates I’m teaching now, who grew up with Web 2.0. They would have been about ten when the seminal text 2 Girls 1 Cup first appeared. Considering how accessible it was, chances are many of them watched it. And 2 Girls 1 Cup is benign compared to the kind of violent pornography that was almost equally as easy to find. So how is this generation so easily shocked?

If they grew up with so many horrors at their fingertips, why do they need trigger warnings?

In my own PhD research, I deal with (fictionalised) trauma and violence on a daily basis. But it is only in some, very specific, cases that these accounts stay with me, that they come back to punctuate my daily life. Like a catchy song you can’t get out of your head, they have the power of recognition. These are, predictably, accounts of rape and sexual assault.

I found one of these in what could be my most favourite of novels, Raymond Federman’s Take It or Leave It. It’s a nightmarish, exalted, enthralling flight and I love every minute of it. At one point, he describes a funny story that happened to a friend of his. This friend was working in of one of those automated canteens (this is the ’50s) where lunches are delivered through a slot. One day, he decides it would be hilarious/exciting to put his enormous, virile member in the slot instead. He waits and, of course, the next customer is an attractive secretary, with long painted fingers. Instead of the awaited lunch, she seizes said virile member and then, confused, bends down to look inside the slot.

Young people are learning to recognise violence… a trigger warning pays respect to the fact that stories like this really happen, to real people, and that these people are your students.

In Federman’s novel, the telling of this joke is framed as a litmus test for mad laughter and, in my reading at least, trauma. This is a work of fiction, by an author I respect and admire, who was very much a part of the boomer counter-culture. But I would absolutely, if I ever had the chance to teach this text, include a trigger warning. Not because I believe Federman was a misogynist, but because the joke sounds a lot like another story I (and many others) read some years ago.

I am referring to the emails, published by New Matilda, by former professor Barry Spurr. In one of these emails, he recounts a story that he heard about a woman at a company party. Her room key wouldn’t work and, waiting, she fell asleep on the bed. A male colleague came around and, finding her there, put his penis in her mouth. She woke up and called the police. In the email Barry Spurr calls her a “worthless slut” who “shouldn’t have been there”. “Goodness,” he laments, “what different times.”

I don’t know what really happened to this woman, or to the “poor chap” who took a joke too far. I can safely guess he wasn’t imprisoned for years, as Spurr feared. I don’t know what company the woman was working for, her position or her age. I can’t predict the fallout from this episode, whether her colleagues would have been largely supportive or secretly resentful. I only know that she was a real woman, that this really happened, and that things like that happen all the time, to some astounding statistic of us. Trigger warnings originated because of stories like this. They have now broadened in scope. Young people are learning to see and recognise different kinds of violence, to listen to different kinds of stories. In each case, a trigger warning pays respect to the fact that stories like this really happen, to real people, and that these people are your students. What you are teaching them, then, may be something they already know about.

There is nothing selfish, or divisive, about a trigger warning. The recognition I feel, my particular trauma, does not exclude the trauma of others. Those who insist on trigger warnings are not vulnerable. They will not wilt, and they will not melt. They only demand that you acknowledge, recognise and respect.


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