The call for “trigger warnings”—a recent censorious trend gaining traction on American college campuses—is designed to alert students of any potentially troubling, unsettling, or upsetting course materials. The impetus is benign enough, and the context includes the important recent mobilization to deal seriously with epidemic levels of rape and sexual assault on campuses across the country. But objections to this trend are also clear: art and literature, education and growth are characteristically disturbing. When a few years ago Judith Shapiro, president of Barnard College, told a faculty meeting dealing with the discomfort some students experienced when exposed to criticisms of Israel that she thought no Barnard student should be uncomfortable in any class, I thought she had lost her way if not her mind. As a professor my goal was that every student would find in my classes every day the familiar and the strange, the comforting and the discomfiting—and I wanted to find those things for myself as well. I mostly wanted everyone to be moved to leap forward, to launch themselves into the going world, and to embark on voyages into the unknown.
The trigger warning—if it is to be used at all—should appear on the application to college itself: Please be aware that you will be challenged here, you will be exposed to ideas you cannot now imagine, you will experience times of cognitive dissonance and intellectual vertigo, and you will likely be transformed in some unscripted and unpredictable ways. If that doesn’t appeal to you, stay home in the comfort of your couch and your familiar books and things.
Oh, and if that set includes the Bible, here’s a trigger warning for that: This good book contains graphic scenes of murder including patricide and matricide, fratricide and genocide (spoiler alert: in the serial genocides that occur in the opening chapters, God takes the wrong side every time), rape including gang rapes and incestuous rape and child rape, torture, tribal warfare, human sacrifice, and slavery—if any of that might trigger bad feelings or icky reactions, stick to the Bible Stories for Children. It’s so much more comforting