In defence of trigger warnings

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Isn’t it awkward when the President of MIND tells victims of abuse that ‘your self-pity gets none of my sympathy’? Aside from the staggeringly insensitive comments which grabbed the headlines, however, it’s worth understanding why people like Fry feel so threatened by trigger warnings and left-wing students.

Fry was interviewed by Dave Rubin, host of The Rubin Report, an American talk show for people who ‘care about free speech’ and are ‘tired of political correctness.’ Rubin, a self-confessed leftie (albeit in the American sense of the word), invites celebrities to discuss ‘the regressive left that seems to be coming after language and speech.’ The rhetoric Fry and Rubin were using, comparing what they see as political correctness to the vicious censorship of V for Vendetta and Nineteen Eighty Four, is a fair indication of the threat Fry thinks students pose to freedom of speech.

Fry’s argument is that rape and abuse are ‘terrible things that have to be thought about,’ and trigger warnings prevent this necessary discussion from happening, a sign of ‘the deep infantilism’ within our culture. He protests that hypersensitive students are attempting to police language, and ‘the word rape is now even considered a rape.’ Then, to his host’s growing discomfort, he complained that abuse victims are too sensitive to appreciate Titus Andronicus and Macbeth because of the themes of rape and child murder, and ought to ‘grow up.’

The trouble with this argument, aside from the horrendously patronising tone, is that no one is saying that Titus Andronicus should be taken off the curriculum because of its potential to trigger victims of sexual abuse. This, ironically, is what trigger warnings are for: to give vulnerable people the choice to opt out of a potentially harmful discussion, whilst still leaving the topic open for those able to contribute. Last term, an article condemning trigger warnings in Durham’s branch of The Tab also made the same mistake, equating trigger warnings with no-platforming, which is an entirely different debate and can legitimately be said to challenge some aspects of free speech.

I really cannot see how anyone can be offended by trigger warnings, which do not in any way prevent us from discussing difficult topics and save some people a lot of pain. Thinking that abuse victims should be able to cope with reminders of their traumatic past is a little like expecting someone with a broken leg to run a marathon. Despite the progress we’ve made, we still don’t seem to understand that psychological hurt requires as much time and assistance to heal as a physical ailment. Fry, who himself suffers from bipolar disorder, should understand that.

Durham, despite a lukewarm amber rating on Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings, is actually very good at dealing with difficult topics, despite Fry’s tidings of doom. One need only think back to Palatinate’s balanced and controversial discussion about the acquittal of Louis Richardson, or, to follow Fry’s theatrical examples, the handling of child abuse in Fourth Wall Theatre’s The Pillowman and rape in Bailey Theatre Company’s Blasted. On a different note, neither of these plays came with trigger warnings, and there is an argument to say that they should have.

Durham English Students are expected to sit through lectures and tutorials discussing Lavinia’s rape in Titus Andronicus (although we did get a trigger warning about bestiality with regards to part of the lecture on A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Most lecturers tend to send emails out in advance about upcoming lecturers and preparatory reading, so it wouldn’t be too hard to add a trigger warning to warn of sensitive material. A lecture on Freud, for instance, may be difficult for victims of child abuse, with the idea of a child’s sexuality developing through their relationship with their parents.

Most criticism of Fry has understandably picked up on his belittling language and his equating of mental illness with ‘self-pity’, but, if we’re honest, how often do we consider if a discussion or art form is likely to trigger an abuse victim? Not enough probably. And how much effort would it be to include a trigger warning in an article or on the Facebook group of a student theatre production? Fry and Rubin seem very eager to lampoon trigger warnings as a sign of ‘the regressive left’ without really considering what harm they are meant to be doing. Our aim should be to create a culture on campuses, and hopefully in society at large, in which trigger warnings are considered the norm.

Photograph: Marco Raaphorst via Flickr

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