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TRIGGER WARNING: This Column Has Ideas In It

Kurt Vonnegut once said, "I hate it that Americans are taught to fear some books and some ideas as though they were diseases."

More and more people are becoming afraid of certain ideas, and want to put warning labels on them before anyone gets hurt.

The labels are called "trigger warnings," the belief that certain books, TV shows, or movies can trigger serious post-traumatic stress disorder in some people.

In others, these ideas can trigger feelings of sadness, crankiness, mild cognitive dissonance, or a general malaise. And since people don't like to feel slightly uncomfortable, they're getting apoplectic about trigger warnings as well.

Recently, some Columbia University students wanted to put a muzzle on their classrooms. In a recent op-ed piece in their college newspaper, four members of the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board called on their Classics department to slap a "Trigger Warning" label on the Ancient Roman poem "Metamorphoses" by Ovid.

"It contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom," they wrote. "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."

Trigger warnings.

I wish the phrase had hard "P" sounds in it, so I could spit it out with contempt.

Trigger warnings.

It conjures images of whiny little snowflakes hiding behind their mothers' skirts.

It's often used by people who lack the experience and strength to deal with life's little hiccups. They can't make decisions for themselves, or handle the stress of life, so they want to be warned beforehand.

I recognize some people have had horrible experiences in life. Seeing them played out in movies, TV, or books can trigger memories that cause them to relive those experiences. A soldier with PTSD can be triggered by a book or even music. A rape victim can be triggered by a scene in a movie. People who have been through real traumatic events may actually need those warnings.

Instead, this faux outrage is making people ignore the real need for real warnings. They're being diluted by those who needlessly cry "wolf." As a result, people with real issues are being harmed by those who self-manufacture righteous indignation.

These precious snowflakes, the ones demanding that everyone else take care of them, are creating the problem. They don't want helicopter parents, they want snowplow parents. They want someone out in front, clearing a path through life.

I refuse. I won't put a trigger warning on my work just because it might be read by weak-minded snowflakes who can't deal with a little cognitive dissonance without snot-crying about it.

We should be challenged. We should be exposed to ideas that are difficult to read and discuss. We should all learn new things that make us worry and fret, and challenge our self-identity. Because that's what life is like.

In the real world, you will experience people who are mean. You will experience people who say things you don't like. They will have ideas you don't agree with, and if you go sniveling to a parental figure to save you from the bad people, you won't get very far in life.

Censoring those ideas will only make things worse.

Yes, censorship.

That's what you call slapping a warning on literature, art, and entertainment because it might make you slightly uncomfortable or challenge your identity.

It's what Tipper Gore's Parental Music Resource Center did in the 1980s. It's why the music you grew up listening to — or more likely, weren't allowed to listen to — had those black-and-white stickers: to warn parents that your music had naughty words in it.

Censorship is an ugly thing. No matter how well-intentioned, when you seek to censor someone's ideas, you tear at the very fabric of this country's ideals.

As Stephen King once wrote in a newspaper column, "(T)hose who would set themselves up in judgment on matters of what is 'right' and what is 'best' should be given no rest; they should have to defend their behavior most stringently. ... As a nation, we've been through too many fights to preserve our rights of free thought to let them go just because some prude with a highlighter doesn't approve of them."

Right or left, conservative or liberal, uptight prude or overly-sensitive PC thug, when you put warning labels on art and ideas, that's censorship. You're no better than book burners.

If you want trigger warnings to help you navigate through the big bad world, try this: write "TRIGGER WARNING" in six-inch letters on a piece of paper. Tape it to your front door, where you'll see it every morning before you leave.

And then step outside and grow up.


Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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