The “Trigger-Warning” Life

Universities have historically always been on the leading edge of American cultural change. The university […]

Todd Brewer / 8.24.15

Universities have historically always been on the leading edge of American cultural change. The university has, or at least tries to be, the place where new ideas are tested, refined, and put into meaningful action. Today’s college students become tomorrow’s leaders, which is to say that the recent explosion of “trigger warning” policies are not an aberration or fad that can be ignored.

As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt so astutely outline in their cover story for The Atlantic (see DZ’s take here), the muting of “triggers” from pedagogy is an overt form of censorship of anything that might create unwelcome, negative feelings. This “coddling” will inevitably form students into “thin-skinned” people as every uncomfortable feeling is made illegal. For worse or better, in the same way that the political correctness of the 80’s is now the law of the land, the current ban on “triggers” in high education is a signal of a larger shift (with a few exceptions) in not just teaching philosophies but in our fundamental beliefs about life. It’s a a starling new shift in thinking that has much wider implications.


Philosophers have long esteemed the virtues of negative experiences and their paradoxical benefits (Certainly Christianity has touched on the subject a few times). But it was Hegel who thematized the negative into a coherent (and compelling) account of all experience. Inasmuch as something or someone is encountered as something new, it reveals something which has not otherwise been known. The experience of this “new” thing is essentially then an experience of negation that corrects or reconfigures one’s knowledge of the world and oneself. As Hegel writes, in the experience of something new “we experience the falsehood of this first concept through another object”; the old has gone and the new has come. In other words, with every new horizon, with everything new that presents itself to us, the truth of what came before is called into question. The experience of learning is the most acute form of this, where new ideas modify or replace old one. Every classroom enacts this process of negation and assimilation. The student and his/her knowledge, if learning has genuinely taken place, is fundamentally changed by each new idea taught.

For Hegel, all of life is the unending dialectical process of death and rebirth. What we know and who we are is always being called into question by every experience of the new which demands an answer. Who we are today is radically different from who we were a year ago. If learning is an uncomfortable endeavor it’s because life is uncomfortable.

hegelAt the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, the rise of “trigger warnings” threatens to forestall this entire process of learning because it seeks to mute every possible feeling of negation or discomfort. By doing so, new experiences can never actually occur because they are outlawed simply by virtue of their newness. This “trigger warning” life becomes something of a na├»ve dogmatism that simultaneously precludes any experience which might threaten our comfort-level and more firmly entrenches those prior the beliefs and ideas. Creating “trigger warnings” around words/topics/writings is just another way to ensure you remain the same person. Insulating you from all that might feel like a confrontation with who you are, all that’s left are those things that confirm you’re awesomeness. Everything and everyone (God included) will be left safely outside of view. A “trigger warning” life is one without much of a plot, let alone an adventure. Where it leaves falling in love is a whole other story.

But before I get too smug about the waywardness of this present generation this is by no means a phenomenon of youth (sorry Jerry). If you or I think this is just a phenomenon of liberal universities you’ve probably forgotten that you frequently un-follow people on Facebook because of their outrageous right/left wing political posts. The censorship of triggers on college campuses is but one of many examples of a wider culture that silences opposing voices that threaten our carefully curated self-equilibrium, whether it be through refusing to watch Foxnews/MSNBC, “filter bubbles” or through our natural confirmation bias. We tend to like who we are, thank you very much, and we desperately try to keep it that way.

Where exactly this will all lead culturally, I haven’t a clue. Prophesy isn’t exactly my calling. Perhaps we will take up Haidt and Lukianoff’s call to practice cognitive behavioral therapy. Others might dismiss it all with a yawn and go back to their iphones until “the negative” eventually comes, unwelcomed. Because one thing I’ve learned (the hard way) is that the “trigger warning” life is usually short-lived, and usually for the better.