Milk-fed veal calves

Milk-fed veal calves.


Do you know what a trigger warning is?  I didn’t until recently.  A trigger warning is a note at the entry point to a book, film, trailer etc warning of potentially disturbing material contained therein that might “trigger” a negative, potentially damaging response in an individual “consumer” of that product.   Apparently, the use of trigger warnings (TWs) is very common in fan-fiction, possibly because so much fan fiction is tripe, full of bizarre, and often unpleasant, couplings and uncouplings of other people’s characters— a phenomenon known as “Lemon” for boring reasons I can’t be bothered to go into.

Now, I don’t have any deep-seated objection to TWs. Why should I, it’s really none of my business, and in some instances it’s a good idea, no different from age limits on films and parental advisories on music labels.  If I were choosing a book for my young kids, out of all the tens of thousands available, and if my husband were a child-beater or a drug-addict, I might be very grateful for a TW stating that these issues were addressed in the book. Then I might opt to buy, or not buy, as my parental judgement suggested.

However, when students in dozens of America’s top Universities start asking for TWs on the books selected for English Literature courses, surely that’s a step too far.  The link to the Guardian article below is just one of dozens you can pull up at a click.


Some of the books that the students want advisories on include The Great Gatsby and– extraordinarily– The Merchant of Venice.  Might I suggest that anyone who fears their suicidal tendencies may be triggered by Scott Fitzgerald’s 80 year old masterpiece, or their anti-semitic tendencies by the very play which gave us the phrase “the quality of mercy is not strained” is not ready for a third-level course of study of literature?

What is great literature for, if not to hold a mirror up to mankind and to warn “Here be monsters”— to provoke fear, loathing, shame, redemption and hope?  I have no problem with people reading comfortable, enjoyable commercial fiction, I read it myself, but to be somehow afraid of the powerful, gut-wrenching, punch in the solar plexus that comes during the suicide scene in Jude the Obscure, is to deprive oneself of a chance to learn, to grow, to empathise, to weep, and perhaps, to heal.

One of the most distressing modern books I have ever read, is Chris Cleave’s “Little Bee” which I read under its original title of “The other hand.”  I read the book in two horrified, transfixed, marathon sessions.  The only reason I didn’t read it all in one epic sweep, as usual, is that I was simply unable to continue.  I wept.  I gasped.  Snot fell onto the pages.  I couldn’t eat or even swallow.  I don’t know if I will ever be able to read it again, although I tend to read books over and over until their spines give in.    Is it distressing?  Horribly so.  Is it full of triggers?  Packed full, you name it, it’s in there.  Should students of English literature be protected from it?  Definitely not.  I would argue that the themes of this book are so vital, so real, so desperately important to the lives of those of us in the Western World and to our understanding of our place on the planet we share, that it should be required reading at senior High School level in every developed country.  And if the students cry?  Let them cry.  And if they find it distressing?  Let them be distressed, that’s what important literature does.  And if they have flashbacks to certain scenes?  They won’t be alone, I’ll be right there with them, flashing-back, pondering, living, learning and growing.

And if the idea of Trigger Warnings does get a hold in the English departments of America’s top universities, among a generation who feel they deserve protection from the realities of life as she is lived?

Then, to steal a phrase from a facebook conversation on this topic, (oh how I wish I could claim this remark as my own)  we run a real risk of allowing our young people to grow up, not merely as mindless, flock-following sheep, but as milk-fed veal calves.


    • Great thanks Olivia, exhausted and galloping round as always. Sang in a concert where Celine Byrne was accompanied by both the choirs I sing with on Wednesday and have another concert on Sunday. When the chaos dies down I am going to get properly stuck into this blog! Been neglected lately!

      • Wow! Is there no end to your talents Orla?? That sounds very exciting. Best of luck with the rest of the concerts. Look forward to more of your great blog posts. :o) Maybe you could share a video of your singing?? xx

      • Ha ha Olivia, the world is not ready for a video of me singing. Concert was a great success Thank god. Home at last after far too much pinot grigio.

        Sent from Samsung Mobile

  1. There’s a few things, I think, going on here. One is that contemporary society is more aware of mental health problems than before. That has a good and a bad outcome. It’s obviously good to be aware of psychological distress and know that many people unfortunately share it and try to deal with. The bad outcome is more subtle. If a few generations back one was told to toughen up when something bad happened and they were distressed, in some instances that worked – some people were able to work with the tough love for their own benefit. Others didn’t. Now, since society is more sensitive, people are a lot less likely to tell somebody to toughen up and people who could benefit from that approach don’t get to do so. Also contemporary shocks I think are of a trickier kind – for instance, before people had to deal with famine and war, now it’s rather the scarcity of secure jobs and affordable housing that do one’s head in. It might not appear terrible compared to war, but it’s still a constant threat to personal security let alone self esteem.

    In the long run, I think everybody needs to face their issues – at least that’s what psychologists say. Maybe gradually, slower for some than for others. It’s a very person specific thing. I think these triggers aren’t a bad idea – as long as they aren’t abused.

    • HI Dehiggal, thanks for your long and considered response. I have been reading a lot round the storm of controversy which has blown up over trigger warnings in the weeks since i wrote my first post.

      I was quite clear at the start that i had no ideological problem with trigger warnings per se and that i could think of many instances where they would be useful. it was their appropriateness in a University setting that i was concerned about. Now, i have to admit that i no longer know where i stand. I wouldn’t like to think i lack compassion for deeply troubled survivors of awful situations, but I don’t know if allowing them to avoid their triggers is good for them either. I can of course now see how a warning sign, a “prepare yourself notice”, might be invaluable, but the idea that individual students could create their own reading list worries me a bit.

      In response to your contribution above, i sometimes wonder if it is just a generational issue with me. I grew up in Armagh in N. Ireland during the 70s and 80s. My neighbour’s father was murdered by the IRA at a minute past midnight on New Year’s Day to symbolically signal the end of the “Christmas ceasefire”. Another neighbour had his legs blown off in a car bomb in his own driveway, just round the corner. My close friend was petrol bombed out of her home a mile from where i lived. When you left home to go to school each morning there was a tiny, but genuine, risk that you might never come back alive. In those days, if you weren’t actually bleeding, you were considered to be “fine” and you just got on with things.

      I don’t know. TWs? They’re not the worst idea I have ever heard of, certainly not the best. I think if we wanted to improve the mental health of our young people, a very important first step would be reducing their exposure to pornography and the sexual violence, and indifference, it seems to have spawned…. but that’s a totally different post.

      • I agree it’s generational. The world of the internet is a very different world than the one before it (re: your points on pornography etc.) and I think in general the world has changed a lot very quickly which makes it pretty hard to find right answers to most things, education included. It might take a couple of generations until everything settles a bit.

  2. Oh my God, i sincerely hope it doesn’t take a couple of generations… I have 4 kids under the age of 9 and i fear for the world they are growing up to enter, very very soon

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