At a recent feminist conference in London, the attendees were advised NOT to clap their hands. Clapping, it seems, could trigger anxiety in the speakers and the participants. So instead, the audience was urged to express approval with something called “feminist jazz hands.” So far, Jazz Hands have not caught on in the United States, but trigger warnings have become de rigueur on many college campuses. Well, what exactly are trigger warnings and are they something we should welcome? AEI Scholar Christina Hoff Sommers gives you the facts.
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Trigger warnings developed in the feminist blogosphere, and typically they appeared at the beginning of articles to alert readers to potentially upsetting content about sexual assault or other violence. These were thought that could trigger traumatic memories in survivors. Well in recent years these warnings have moved from blogs to newspapers to classrooms. Professors at schools like Oberlin, Rutgers, and UCSB have been urged to place “trigger warnings” on reading lists with books like The Great Gatsby or Things Fall Apart—these need warnings because they include upsetting descriptions of misogyny, sexual violence, racism, colonialism. As a UCSB lit major, Bailey Loverin, explained in the New York Times, “without a trigger warning, a survivor might black out, become hysterical or feel forced to leave the room.” There has been a lot of pushback against the culture of trigger warnings. But to no avail. And the list of triggering events and materials it just keeps growing. In its summary of potential triggers, Geek Feminism Wiki mentions topics body shaming and eating disorders. It notes that members of a fertility support group might require warnings for pregnancy announcements. And it turns out a trigger warning itself can be triggering. The Factual Feminist is concerned. I don’t view trigger warnings as a wholesome development–for so many reasons. I’ll mention three: First, trigger warnings have no basis in the scientific literature. Richard McNally, a Harvard psychologist and expert on anxiety disorders, recently published a review of the relevant research which suggests that these warnings do more harm than good. It turns out that most trauma victims are resilient, they don’t need therapy and certainly don’t need trigger warnings. For the small percentage who suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, trigger warnings appear to be counter-productive. “Avoidance,” says McNally, “reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.” Now second objection, trigger warnings are creating a hostile environment for critical thinking and free expression. Professors at leading colleges and universities have to carefully scan their classroom materials for anything that might conceivably make a student uncomfortable. A Harvard Law School professor, Jeannie Suk, recently published an article in The New Yorker about how law school students are now demanding trigger warnings for any discussion of sexual violence, and some are saying that this shouldn’t be taught at all. Too upsetting. Too disturbing. Another professor wrote about his fear of accidentally saying something insensitive and unleashing a mob of aggrieved students “carrying mattresses to your office hours” or “starting a twitter petition demanding you chop off your hand in repentance.” It’s the custom on some campuses for traumatized students to gather in “survival circles” where they give each other shoulder massages and share feelings and offer mutual support. But the classroom is not massage therapy, it’s not a feelings circle—it is supposed to prepare students for life and its inevitable challenges. Finally—I want to say this—Trigger warnings are embarrassing to women and to feminism. They convey the idea that women are helpless children –delicate little injured birds who cannot cope with clapping.
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