The Rest of the World Is Laughing at Our Debate Over “Trigger Warnings”

Chris Rock did a bit years ago where he talked about how we have so much food in this country that we actually have the luxury of being able to claim we’re allergic to some of it. There are people living in underdeveloped countries who would gladly eat out of our dumpsters and here we are casually excising certain items from our diet because they make our tummy hurt. “You think anybody in Rwanda’s got a fucking lactose intolerance?” Rock chastised, to laughter and applause.

Granted, each person’s troubles are his or her own, but sometimes it’s still a good idea to look outside our own private bubble in an effort to give our gripes some perspective, even if that bubble happens to be the size of the United States. While many Americans face very real issues in their day-to-day lives, overall we’ve still got it a hell of a lot better than the millions living in underdeveloped or war-torn regions of the world. There’s a reason a full-on internet meme is devoted to the notion of “First World Problems.” For a good number of us, the crises we obsess over are in reality little more than inconveniences — especially when you consider the bigger picture.

Maybe this is why it’s interesting to read an outsider’s take on our culture’s current debate over “trigger warnings.” You know what trigger warnings are by now so I’m not going to make your head hurt any more than absolutely necessary by rehashing the battle over these ridiculous things. Suffice it to say, they’re the latest effort to bring political correctness back into the mainstream by essentially childproofing the collegiate experience in deference to those who are too sensitive to even hear about certain subjects.

In an opinion column currently running over at Al Jazeera America, British writer Ruth Fowler dissects the debate but makes no pretense of being objective about the whole thing. She calls trigger warnings an “indulgent American impulse,” and while her piece sometimes does come off as equally indulgent and predictably self-righteous, her overall point about trigger warnings and the way people with real problems throughout the world would see them is a worthwhile one.

It’s hard to feel any sympathy for a student discreetly taking a professor aside to discuss the content of the assigned reading and its impact on the psyche after you’ve watched a bunch of Afghans twitch slightly at yet another bomb and keep going because they have very little else available to them: no therapy, no shrink, no Xanax, no vociferous student union caring about their feelings, no professor who might carefully comb a reading list for potential triggers. It’s hard not to think that the desire for trigger warnings isn’t simply evidence of a younger generation’s need to “toughen up,” but yet another manifestation of the very American desire to limit one’s experience to “pleasant” things rather than fully understanding the world around us…

It got me thinking: Was trauma just shorthand for “not getting what you want”? Feeling inconvenience in an affluent, convenient society? Or is it really possible that the entire nation is on the verge of a breakdown because of something so dark and sordid and painful in its past, that even the relatively innocuous Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” has the ability to trigger it?

Fowler essentially puts it like this: If people who live under the constant threat of being blown up in the street aren’t wearing a PTSD diagnosis around their necks and asking everyone they come into contact with to handle them with kid gloves because of it, some relatively well-off American college student has no legitimate reason to.