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Schubart: Trigger Warnings

When I first heard the term “trigger warning,” I imagined Roy Rogers leaning down and whispering something to his horse but I’ve come to understand that the concept is something new that’s emerging in schools and campuses around the country - generally arising from the student body, but also endorsed by some faculty.

A “trigger warning” is an admonition that a book, artwork, piece of music, article, play, or film might make the viewer uncomfortable or, worse, trigger emotional trauma. And while I can see a place for trigger warnings among the most vulnerable populations such as those with chronic mental illness, I can see no place for them in our institutions of high learning.

If a college adopts a trigger warning policy, the warnings should be administered out of the same building that houses the helicopters parents - and the institution itself should carry a trigger warning that it is no longer an institution of higher learning.

Our schools, churches, libraries, theaters, concert halls and museums are places we go to experience and confront new ideas, ethics and aesthetics. They don’t guarantee, nor should they, a pain-free experience.

Parents and schools should ensure that their charges’ experience is age-appropriate, especially in the early years but, as they mature, that they open up to intellectual, spiritual, and artistic challenge. Of necessity, this will involve some shock and pain so they can become adults who thrive in a rough and tumble world.

Neoteny is a biological term that refers to prolonged childlike characteristics in an adult or a failure to mature into adulthood. Even if we could predict what might upset someone, the real world will never oblige. Trigger warnings only ensure that our children remain children and that the natural narcissism of youth persists into adulthood.

The job of parents is not to make themselves more beloved or to make their children more dependent on them or on other adults. It is to fledge their children into the real world and to prepare them for the emotional, intellectual and spiritual assaults with which this world will inevitably present them.

My parents, mentors and teachers helped me grow up. They did not try to make me feel secure and comfortable. They challenged me, annoyed me, and sometimes scared me, by propelling me into new ideas and experiences.

I can’t imagine walking through the Metropolitan, the Louvre or the Tate only to see a sign warning that my child and I are about to see nudity such as Edward Weston’s iconic nudes – nor taking a seat at the Metropolitan Opera and seeing a sign warning we’re about to hear the “mad scene” in Lucia di Lammermoor.

We do our young people and ourselves a disservice by denying the discomforts and occasional pain that real life presents. We can be there for them when they falter but to guard them against the discomfort that great art, literature, and the lessons of history bring is to leave them defenseless and put wisdom beyond their reach.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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