Trigger warning: this column is written by a white, middle-class English woman. Trigger warning: this column may contain views that don’t entirely coincide with yours. Trigger warning: this writer sometimes quotes from other writers who might, once, or even twice if you research deeply enough, have done or said something you might find upsetting. Trigger warning: this writer sometimes mentions Mrs Thatcher without spitting.
We’ve long been subjected to below-signature email disclaimers. Every law firm, for example, prints a barrage of disclaimer verbiage six times longer than the actual email, and though the start of this column may be slightly exaggerated, soon the front of your emails will be similarly clad. In case you’re wise enough not to follow the latest fashions in indignation – Facebook is Indignation Central; everybody’s furious about something so Facebook is introducing an 'angry' button for the time-saving digital stab – 'trigger warnings' are an alert that something in what follows might disturb, alarm, or offend. They're all the (out)rage.
Trigger warnings are the grandchild, or step-child – I was going to write b*****d child, but that probably requires a trigger warning – of political correctness. Poor political correctness! It’s come a long way since 1793 when the term was first coined in an American law-suit. After being taken up and batted about by left and right, its most modern incarnation was well described by none other than President Bush (George H, not George W) as the 'laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred’, though he also warned that 'it replaces old prejudice with new ones’ and 'declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits’.
Actually, the threat to free speech notwithstanding, the placing of some words or expressions 'off-limits’ is arguably a good trade-off. When I remember some of the words flung about as insults in 1970s school playgrounds, I’m mortified. The old adage 'sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ isn’t true of all words.
But there’s a difference between using words with care, or in extreme cases not using them at all, and being obliged always to treat readers, viewers or listeners as though they’re too fragile to be exposed to anything they might find alarming or upsetting, or that might remind them of anything alarming and upsetting. Yet, as Frank Furedi illustrates in 'The End of Argument’, trigger warnings are moving like a censorious infection across the western world.
Even universities – perhaps especially universities – once at least notional free spaces for any type of discussion, are having their curriculums rattled by students demanding trigger warnings be attached to texts which contain traumatic scenes. At New York’s Colombia University, for example, some students 'questioned the professor’s judgement’ when he/she failed to warn them that Ovid’s 'Metamorphoses' contained scenes of rape and sexual assault.
According to Furedi, supporters of trigger warnings argue that 'readers need to be forewarned that the ideas, views, images and attitudes they are about to encounter may make them feel uncomfortable or even traumatised’. He dismisses this argument, and indeed, even if you think the argument has some merit, trigger warnings don’t really work. On the one hand, they encourage people not to face upset, and if you don’t face your demons, you can’t conquer them. On the other, they encourage guilty and creepy voyeurism. A trigger warning or its sister, the graphic image warning, is click-bait as well as caution.
And where to stop? Obviously the newly discovered Beatrix Potter story, 'Kitty-in-Boots', to be published in the autumn, should be 'triggered’. From tasters, Kitty seems to be kitted out in the 'full gamekeeper’, complete with potentially disturbing dead game. Perhaps all Beatrix Potter books need a warning. After all, 'Peter Rabbit' faces rural violence, and 'The Tale of Samuel Whiskers' will surely trigger terror every time a nervous reader hears a scuffling or a scratching. If you remember, Tom Kitten himself, the intended victim of 'old rat’ Samuel and his wife, Anna Maria, was so traumatised by being almost turned into a dumpling that ever afterwards he was frightened of anything bigger than a mouse.
But seriously, it’s hard to think of any text that doesn’t trigger something and any text that triggers nothing isn’t worth reading. What’s more, if modern university students must be protected from even fictional distressing sights, sounds and experiences, how will they cope after graduation when presented, unprotected, with the hideous sights, sounds and experiences through which the human race has bungled and is still bungling its way to perdition?
It’s possible, of course, they won’t have to. Last week, I’m sure I spotted a 'graphic image’ warning over photographs of the whales beached at Skegness. In the blubber, as it were – whoops, trigger warning needed there. Begin again. Trigger warning: tasteless but accurate pun to follow. In the blubber, as it were, a dead whale is an imposing and possibly upsetting sight, but on the internet, they’re just large grey objects lying in the sand. There was little blood. Nobody was chopping them up. Naturally, it’s fine to be upset about dead whales. Up to a point, I am myself. Dead whales are more moving than, say, dead jellyfish or dead trout. But if we need protecting from feelings generated by a photograph of intact dead whales lying peacefully in the sand, how are we to manage the daily savagery of Daesh?
And where’s the consistency? 'Graphic image’ warnings no longer routinely accompany static archive photographs of men in orange jumpsuits flanked by knife-wielding executioners. In my view, these pictures shouldn’t be published at all, not because they’re ghastly, which they are, extremely, but because Daesh publish them in order to provoke the horror on which death-cults feed, then watch with satisfaction as the same media outlets which feel we need protecting from images of dead whales, publish the horror again and again.
Finally, if you’ve been upset by issues raised in this piece, feel free to write in and complain, though if you read the first paragraph properly, you can hardly claim you weren’t warned.