THE BLOG

Trigger Warning: I Am About to Critique Trigger Warnings

02/05/2015 09:19 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015
Eric Raptosh Photography via Getty Images

Last April, I delivered an invited lecture at Wellesley College titled "How Thought Police Regulate the Free Exchange of Ideas." One of the topics that I covered in my talk was the recent phenomenon of having trigger warnings in university courses, namely the idea that some topics should necessitate an alert prior to being broached lest some audience member might be disturbed or offended by exposure to such material. As an avid animal lover, I always recoil in horror at the sight of television advertisements that depict animal cruelty (e.g., the ad in which Sarah McLachlan sings her terribly depressing song). As such, I understand the spirit of trigger warnings when coupled with uniquely gruesome or troublesome issues. The problem though is that trigger warnings seem to cover an endless list of possible "triggering" topics. In preparation for my Wellesley lecture, I visited several websites in order to cull topics that are considered to be "trigger-worthy." Here is a list of items most of which stem from Kyriarchy & Privilege 101:

• Sex (even if consensual)
• Pregnancy, childbirth
• Addiction, alcohol, drug use, needles
• Death, dying, suicide, injuries, descriptions and/or images of medical procedures
• Racism, classism, sexism, sizeism, ableism, other "isms"
• Bullying, homophobia, transphobia
• Blood, vomit, insects, snakes, spiders, slimy things, corpses, skulls, skeletons
• Swearing, slurs (including words such as "stupid" or "dumb")
• Abuse (physical, mental, emotional, verbal, sexual), child abuse, rape, kidnapping
• Descriptions and/or images of violence or warfare, Nazi paraphernalia
• Anything that might elicit intrusive thoughts in OCD sufferers

Let's examine my own scientific work in light of the latter list of "trigger-worthy" topics. I tackle the evolutionary roots of consumer behavior, which include subjects as varied as human mating, sexual signaling, dark side consumption (pathological gambling, compulsive buying, eating disorders, pornographic addiction), intra-sexual competition (which includes male-on-male violence), among countless other "triggering" topics. I've also authored papers on Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (a form of child abuse), suicide, and OCD. When I discuss the difference between proximate and ultimate scientific explanations, I use the example of pregnancy sickness. I've supervised a thesis on sexual, moral, and pathogenic disgust, and I recently submitted a grant application, which examines in part the links between pathogenic density and various consumer phenomena. I mention all of these topics to highlight the fact that nearly every imaginable issue worthy of scientific exploration could conceivably fall under the "trigger warning" rubric.

Trigger warnings are an instantiation of the West's zeitgeist of perpetual offense and victimhood that defines much of public discourse. If the truth might hurt someone's feelings or cause discomfort, well then we need to cuddle them whilst in a communal fetal position. In one of my recent YouTube clips titled Malala Versus Trigger Warnings, I contrasted the heroism of Malala Yousafzai (recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize) to the pampered reality of university students who require "trigger warning" protection from central realities of the human condition. Malala was fighting for the rights of girls to be educated in a harsh environment wherein they face endemic actual violence. Contrast their reality with that of university students on North American campuses that require protection from discussions of violence in safe classroom settings.

There are justifiable case-by-case situations wherein an educator might exhibit targeted sensitivity to a student's unique circumstances. This is humane and laudable. In most instances though, trigger warnings are not a manifestation of justified empathy but are symptomatic of an ailing culture. Empires implode from within due to their own excesses. Trigger warnings are part of the West's debauchery of self-indulgent victimhood.