Trigger warnings on textbooks, novels border on ridiculous

by G. Robert Frazier

I don’t mean to sound insensitive or cold, but this whole push for trigger warnings on virtually everything is ridiculous.

According to the Washington Post article, four students, who are members of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, say trigger warnings are needed on certain texts dealing with Greek mythology, of all things. “These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background,” the students write.

When I worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, we would often include a note to readers — a trigger warning, if you will — at the beginning of stories about sexual violence. It was just good public policy to let parents know the article’s content might not be suitable for children to read. It was the same idea as ratings for motion pictures and comic books.

Trigger warnings take the idea a step further, by seeking such warnings on topics ranging from racism to classism to sexism and every -ism in between. And not just for the benefit of parents trying to monitor their childrens’ reading, but for the reader who may take personal offense to any of the issues or content within said article.

Jenny Jarvey of the New Republic wrote last year that “Oberlin College has published an official document advising faculty members to ‘be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,’ to remove triggering material when it doesn’t ‘directly’ contribute to learning goals and ‘strongly consider’ developing a policy to make ‘triggering material’ optional.”

That sounds like just another way to rewrite history by cherry picking the good things out of the bad.

More likely, it’s a way for students to make up an excuse as to why they haven’t read the required reading for class or done their homework on time: “Hey prof, I found your homework assignment offensive so I didn’t do it.”

It may be that written material — whether it be in the form of a newspaper article covering a violent crime or a true crime novel or even a ficitonal novel — may warrant such a word of warning to certain readers. But really, who is to say what is potentially offensive and what’s not? One person may be offended by a story about depression and suicide, another may be offended if the characters are meat eaters and not vegetarians.

You simply can’t police everything for everybody.

You, as a reader, as an adult, need to make some decisions for yourself. Hey, read the back cover book blurb or the inside cover blurb before you buy for starters. Read a review about the book. You can find out a lot about the book’s subject matter doing so without the added requirement of having a label stamped on the book.

I tend to agree with those commenting on the above article who point out the trigger warning mania is another symptom of today’s “cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.”

Frankly, if it offend thee, then stop reading or skip over the nasty bits. If what you’ve read still causes some manner of trauma, then maybe you need to seek out professional help rather than try to censor the item with a trigger warning.

My goal as a writer is to tell an entertaining story. Since I favor the mystery and horror genres above others, my writing may include potentially graphic or shocking depictions of crime or other events. Writers and publishers have a responsibility to market their stories to appropriate audiences, but including trigger warnings for potentially offensive issues seems excessive and unnecessary. So do trigger warnings on college textbooks.

What’s your take? Share your opinions in the comment box below. 


1 thought on “Trigger warnings on textbooks, novels border on ridiculous

  1. I agree. Even though I am a conservative in most areas, it doesn’t offend me to read a differing POV on a subject. As an adult, I can disagree with a book I read and not be angry that it was written in the first place. Maybe I’ll even like it! (But as an aside, that is why I tend to read reviews about books before I buy them–someone usually remarks upon a controversial issue that I may rather avoid at that time in my reading queue.)

    As for what children read, I think it’s the parent’s responsibility to monitor what their child reads, but at some point, even that “child” is going to grow up and needs to learn discernment. In some cases, it’s best to let that child read something that differs from the viewpoint you want him/her to have, and discuss it honestly, openly, and in an adult manner. It seems like this world is so politically correct these days that we can’t speak honestly about anything! 😉


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