David Hoppe

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:: Trigger warning

The real world is sick

by David Hoppe

A lot about college may have changed over the years, but one thing remains the same: many students still refer to life-after-graduation as happening in a place called “the real world.”

The real world supposedly exists outside the campus bubble. It’s filled with strangers of different ages, backgrounds, expectations and demands. If the real world can be a place of great opportunity, it can also be unforgiving. There is no grading on a curve.

Most college students are all too aware of the differences between the real world and the lives they lead. That’s what makes the growing push among some students for trigger warnings in classrooms so troubling.

Trigger warnings, according to the Urban Dictionary, are intended,  “to alert people when an internet post, book, article, picture, video, audio clip, or some other media could potentially cause extremely negative reactions (such as post-traumatic flashbacks or self-harm) due to its content.”

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, students recently passed a resolution that trigger warnings be posted for classes using materials dealing with “rape, sexual assault, abuse, self-injurious behavior, suicide, graphic violence, pornography, kidnapping, and graphic descriptions of gore.”

The resolution was proposed by a student, who was herself a victim of sexual violence. She said a movie depicting rape, screened by a teacher without advance warning in one of her classes, caused her to have a post-traumatic stress reaction. Her proposal was intended to protect other students.

Across the country, a Rutgers student, Philip Wythe, echoed this desire, writing in his college newspaper that trigger warnings can help make the classroom a “safe space.”

At first blush it is easy to dismiss the call for trigger warnings as yet another PC campus indulgence. A misguided attempt to keep the real world at bay.

But that world keeps crowding in — and it’s twisted. As reported in Not Alone, the first White House Task Force report on sexual violence on American college campuses, one of every five collegiate women has been the victim of sexual assault. In most cases, the perpetrators are men these women already know. Too often, these crimes go unpunished (http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/documents/local/white-house-report-on-campus-sex-assault/960/).  

Now combine this slice of campus life with that laundry list assembled by the students at UC Santa Barbara, the one ending with “graphic violence, pornography, kidnapping, and graphic descriptions of gore.”

In other words, the primetime cable menu for any night of the week.

Sexualized violence is our version of the ol’ soft shoe: it’s what we call entertainment. Given the casual ubiquity of this stuff, it’s no wonder, first, that the number of victims reported among us keeps growing and, second, that more and more of us (and not just college students) will go for a safe place wherever we can find it.

Trigger warnings, of course, are no solution for the deep cultural dysfunction that ails us. They’re like a white flag hoisted by students who have already felt enough of the real world to know it needs fixing.