Sign, Sign, Everywhere A Sign: Why Stop With Trigger Warnings?

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Elite college campuses are atwitter with talk of the need for trigger warnings on works of literature, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This concerns me, but not because I can’t make it through The Cask of Amontillado without getting night sweats. It concerns me because soon my kids will be applying to college, and before I drop any shekels on leafy erudition, I want to know what I’m signing up for.

Have things really changed so much in a quarter century? I just assumed that freshman girls still buy that Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville poster in the bookstore, and listen to whoever The Cure named in their will. And frosh guys still enter the patchouli phase, a three-month window during which incense sticks seem the height of urbanity. Is this normal university groupthink, or something different?

Perhaps this should be someone else’s struggle. Then I could focus on other projects, like my homeowner association’s unwillingness to acknowledge that local squirrels are “up to something.” After all, my kids might not even have the grades for the Ivies. Sticking the landing on your Ben Franklin presentation is one thing, ringing the five-bell on the AP calculus exam is quite another. As for admissions-friendly summer activities, nobody’s drafted a world peace manifesto in Esperanto, or developed an app that employs game theory to keep the global price of oil range-bound. They haven’t desalinated ocean water, but they haven’t salinated anyone’s fresh water, either, so maybe they’ve got a chance. I’d better dial in.

As I understand it, the trigger warning stands guard on the dust jacket as a verbal sentry, lest readers unwittingly confront ideas within that make them feel unsafe. This is important because lurking within are “microaggressions,” or aggressions that are visible only under a microscope. No less real for being small, mind you. Yet somehow I don’t think a CSI Microaggressions spinoff is in the works, even though the crime scene dialogue could write itself:

Detective #1: This perp was one sick puppy. Such disregard for human life. Even his own, in the end.

Detective #2: Did you see his bookshelf? Homer, Vergil, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, all without trigger warnings.

Detective #1: He was a ticking time bomb.

Others can debate whether putting trigger warnings on the Western canon is an idea whose time has come. I suspect if Ovid himself were asked, he’d say something like my intention wasn’t to offend. Back then poetry competed with the Roman circus and had to be a little steamy to sell. Not like today, where I’m guessing poets don’t compete with salacious and readily available content. But enough on that – does funnel cake taste even half as good as it smells?

So here it is. I don’t have a problem with college kids preserving safe spaces via trigger warnings on books. At worst, it’s a classic case of good idea, bad execution, like thinking naming your fists will buy you regular-guy street cred, and then naming them Hall and Oates. We see it in nature, in the black and yellow warning coloration of wasps. My only question is why stop there? We could give fresh-faced college readers a literary heads up in many other valuable ways. From the tactical (The Stranger: For best results, read this late at night freshman year in an independent coffee shop), to the pragmatic (The Republic: There’s a 100 percent chance you will be tested on the Allegory of the Cave), to the honest (Atlas Shrugged: You’re the winsome captain of the lacrosse team: that fact, not your love of objectivism, is why you’ll end up on Wall Street).

We need not even limit ourselves to books. Once you accept the logic of trigger warnings, the possibilities are endless. Undergrads themselves could wear trigger warnings around their necks to save everyone time and aggravation. That smoking-hot art history major from Ardmore: Don’t waste your time. I am, in fact, out of your league. The fraternity guy back-benching in Econ 101: I spent a small fortune to look this slovenly. The sleep-deprived architecture student next to him: I too look slovenly, but only because the path to my degree hasn’t changed since the 13th century.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time before trigger warnings themselves, merely for the events that they portend, are objectionable. Then our choices will be an ever-growing daisy chain of trigger warnings about trigger warnings, or the closing of all books for the sake of safety. So maybe we ought to just keep things the way they are.