Trigger Warnings And The Bard

We’ve reached a milestone of sorts:  students at Cambridge University in England have been given “trigger warnings” about studying the plays of William Shakespeare.  According to reports, undergraduates in English Literature at the school — which is located just north of the Bard of Avon’s old stomping grounds in London — were cautioned that a lecture focusing on Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors would include “discussions of sexual violence” and “sexual assault.”

william-shakespeare-the-life-of-the-bardThe decision has provoked a useful debate about the “trigger warnings” that more and more schools seem to be using in their academic curricula.  Advocates of such warnings say they serve to advise students about discussion of topics that might be upsetting because, for example, they might remind students of a traumatic personal experience.  Detractors of trigger warnings say it infringes upon academic freedom, because teachers will self-edit to avoid discussing difficult topics, and that it gives students a distorted perspective by leading them to believe that they can simply avoid learning about the ugly realities addressed in history and literature.

I’m in the latter camp.  And I think that, once “trigger warnings” become accepted in any context, the debate inevitably will shift to whether even more trigger warnings are needed, and how exactly they should be worded, and what students should be permitted to do to avoid the potentially upsetting topics.  The slippery slope seems pretty slippery and pretty steep.  It’s hard to think of any play by Shakespeare, for example, that couldn’t plausibly be the subject of a “trigger warning” because of violence, incest, insanity, sexual misconduct, bawdy humor, or depictions of characters on the basis of gender, race, or religion.  And what history course wouldn’t be riddled with trigger warnings about wars, plagues, racism, sexism, and general human misery?  How could students possibly get a real, meaningful education if they were allowed to skip courses that addressed topics they might find personally upsetting?

I think the use of trigger warnings, while well intentioned, does a real disservice to our young people.  It indicates that they are viewed as so brittle and weak that they need to be protected from mere words and knowledge, and it also gives them a distorted view of what life is going to be like.  The real world doesn’t give trigger warnings to allow people to avoid confronting upsetting topics or situations, and you have to wonder what kind of hyper-delicate, head-in-the-sand adults are going to be produced by school systems and colleges that employ trigger warnings.

As Shakespeare himself wrote in Marc Antony’s great soliloquy in Julius Caesar:  “Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.”