Have you been reading lately about “trigger warnings? “These are alerts to those who find themselves in a college classroom or other public setting, warning them that some of the material they are about to experience may upset them. The idea is that those who have had traumatic episodes – assault, for instance – might experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder if they see or read depictions of powerfully similar and evocative experiences. A piece in the New York Times back in May mentioned The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, and Greek mythology as possible “trauma triggers” identified by on-campus advocates of “trigger warnings.” The article has by now acquired nearly 1400 comments, and the conversation still seems to be picking up steam.
When I first read about this, I was reminded of my induction into gender politics many years ago. I fell in love with someone who lived in a collective household, so I moved to Portland to live with him. I had been an activist for years, but mostly in other realms – pro-peace, anti-draft, civil rights – where feminism had made incursions but was still insurgent. I’d read some of its primary texts and participated in discussions with other women, influencing my own life, to be sure. But still, nervous at my initial vetting by some of the women of the commune, I made a major faux pas: the word “chick” was still in current use in my corners of San Francisco, but in the commune, when I referred to “this chick,” it dropped like a bomb.
It only took one bomb for me to get the point. Like many children of immigrants, I’m good at picking up and internalizing the customs of the country. So I quickly learned some of them – how to talk and how to dress, things like that. But I balked at others. In a discussion of pre-teenagers, the thought-leader of the household corrected me: I should refer to “junior high school women,” not girls. (I never heard anyone say, “It’s a woman!” upon learning of a baby’s birth, but that doesn’t mean it never happened.)