Trigger Warning! A few years ago you and I and most people would not have known what that headline meant. Now if you are a teacher, from elementary school through post-doctoral scholarly life, especially if you teach and study literature and all the liberal arts, you may have a reflexive response of either of two sorts.
One response to "Trigger Warning!" may be an alert sense that there is trouble ahead, something jarring to all or offensive to some. The other response may well be, "Oh, that again?" Talk about "trigger warnings" is so overdone in public discourse that it threatens to have a short shelf life. What more is there to be said?
That much is still being said will be apparent to anyone who combs the internet for appearances of the two words. I noticed this when doing research for this column. A search for "trigger warning" in The Chronicle of Higher Education locates four references.
Even a casual reader will find references commonplace. The first paragraph on the first page of the "Comment" section in The New Yorker (June 9-16, 2014) begins: "Unless you spend much time sitting in a college classroom or browsing through certain precincts of the Internet, it's possible that you had not heard of trigger warnings until a few weeks ago."
Then we learn that The New York Times two weeks ago "explained that the term refers to preemptive alerts, issued by a professor or an institution at the request of students, indicating that material presented in class might be sufficiently graphic to spark symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder."
The topics thus preemptively marked may have to do with any of the "isms" -- racism, sexism, ageism, etc. -- that point to genuine stress-inducing elements in contemporary life. The impulse to do the marking may be humane -- PTSD is a genuine and addressable problem -- but, its critics say, it can also be partisan "politically correct" agitation.
Readers who are not well-versed in the controversies on all sides of this issue will soon understand why, in this brief column, we cannot offer anything of value on that front. Our business is to track such controversies as they affect religion in public life.
Trigger warning: If you don't want religion discussed, criticized, or praised in literature and public life in general, please be forewarned that from here on out we will focus on religion.
See "Should the Bible Have a Trigger Warning?" by Elissa Strauss, in today's reference section. The answers will be "yes" or "no" depending on the attitudes to the Bible and religion among those asked.
To eliminate suspense: Clearly, the Bible, Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament alike, includes perhaps thousands of stress-inducing stories and sayings. Some of the older New Atheists will argue that the way to eliminate stress is to rule out the Bible and other religious literature from universities and journals. Others will say that the Bible is a singularly stress-inducing sacred text, and the way to solve the problem is to turn students to other faiths. Think of gentle Gandhism, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, etc. To offer this solution is to display one's ignorance of those faiths. If in doubt, "look 'em up."
Informed students know about the "Trigger Warning"-inspiring texts. Religious scholars deal with them constantly. They know that religious texts treat the extremes of existence, of life and death matters, of love and hate, care and brutality, and not only do they not shy away from discussing them but that they can also promote depth of understanding, care, solace, and healing. The human story gives unlimited illustrations of these.
On religious texts, one might also post "Trigger Message: Look out! Potentials for healing ahead. Read with care."
Mead, Rebecca. "Literature and Life." The New Yorker. June 9, 2014, Comment.
The New York Times, May 19, 2014, The Opinion Pages Room for Debate.
Medina, Jennifer. "Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm." The New York Times, May 17, 2014, U.S.
Strauss, Elissa. "Should the Bible Have a Trigger Warning? The Good Book Exposes Our Vulnerabilities--As It Should." The Jewish Daily Forward, May 25, 2014, Forward Forum.
Essig, Laurie. "Trigger Warnings Trigger Me." The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 8, 2014, The Conversation.
This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School.