The other week I read an interesting piece on the New Republic website about how trigger warnings have risen from the annals of the Internet and are now being used by prominent institutions such as universities. Trigger warnings are small messages before something (e.g. an image or a message) is displayed in order to allow people to not have to view something they don’t want to see for fear that it might induce post-traumatic stress. On the whole I think these are good things to have much like having censorship warnings on material that might be considered obscene to certain people. The initial purpose of these warnings was to ward off people from clearly disturbing subject matter such as suicidal ideation, experiences with eating disorders and other similarly heavy subjects. Now it seems that these warnings are merging into broader and more prominent arenas such as colleges and news outlets. At Rutgers University it was suggested that there should be a trigger warning put on an English syllabus with The Great Gatsby. It would have warned prospective readers that the book contains themes of suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.
The New Yorker article goes on to argue that trigger warnings are threatening discussion about many of the proverbial “hard topics.” This is an interesting line of thought to consider but it wasn’t the one that sparked my attention and got the cogs in my brain churning. I was profoundly more curious about whether trigger warnings being placed on cultural artifacts would hinder the production of what has been considered “good culture” and more broadly what effects growing concerns about problematic experiences will have on the production of popular culture. By “good culture” I am referring to cultural artifacts that are widely considered to be of cultural merit or repute. Upon quick reflection of many of the movies, art works, stories, etc… that I would call “good” all involve difficult subject matter (this is likely the same for you). Good in this instance is not a moral good but rather descriptive good. It’s not that culture ought to be this way but rather empirically how has been and been judged. These cultural artifacts are also not good because they depict such subject matter, otherwise The Faces of Death would be the pinnacle of American cultural achievement. A good example of what I have in mind is The Wire.
I am convinced, as many other people are, that The Wire is the best television show ever made. That claim still hasn’t taken down from Wikipedia, so it must be true. But if you watch The Wire what you will see along with the masterful storytelling are many jarring incidents. There are murders, sexual assaults, heavy drug use, racism, sexism, and just about every other imaginable troubling occurrence in life. I could see the showing being quite triggering to people who have lived what the show displays. Moreover, much of the content in the show could easily be understood as problematic due its depictions of life in West Baltimore. Very few reasonable people would say that many of the events in the show are good from a moral point of view. Yet, from a storytelling perspective the show is a masterpiece. I think this is the crucial tension between trigger warnings and many of our prized cultural artifacts, namely that they are fundamentally opposed to one another. The cultural artifacts we as a society are often drawn to and consider worthy of substantial acclaim seem to be the ones that are also perturbing. I am not entirely sure what to make of this. I do not think it is a rule that something has to have a triggering capability or problematic to be aesthetically good.
I do not mean to insinuate that trigger warnings and growing concerns about problematic content will stop these sorts of cultural artifacts from being produced or prevent people from consuming them. More interesting to me is the idea of producing cultural artifacts that can still be good without containing potentially triggering subject matter and to an even further extent not containing problematic subject matter. This strikes me as the big challenge and/or frontier for activists to deal with.