Banned Books, Trigger Warnings, and Identity Politics

Is it the same thing to ban a book and refuse to read one for a college course?

Early this summer, Tara Shultz claimed that Crafton Hills College did not properly prepare her for the subject matter of several books she would be required to read in a course. She claimed graphic novels like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis contained sexual and violent subject matter that she didn’t expect. Instead of changing the course, or attempting to speak to the professor about alternatives, she launched a campaign to get the books banned from the entire college. Obviously, it didn’t get very far.

This is an extreme example of the current fight in higher education surrounding trigger warnings, but does this example really demonstrate a fight about trigger warnings? Or is it a fight over banned books? Trigger warnings are preliminary statements before a piece of art that make its audience aware of specific, potentially distressing topics that will be covered. Does this come from the same place as banned books, a form of censorship that most typically is originated by governments instead of individual students?

The reason for banned books is typically political or religious. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a fantastic example. Refused publishing during World War 2 because it was critical of the Soviet Union, a crucial wartime ally, it would later be banned in the Soviet Union for that very criticism. It’s still banned in the United Arab Emirates because one character is a talking pig, and such an image does not fit with that country’s perception of Islamic values. It’s banned in North Korea for its criticism of dictatorship.

The entire 50 Shades of Grey series is banned in Malaysia for being a “threat to morality.”

In 1981, The Catcher in the Rye was both tops among banned books and the second most taught book in the United States. The complaints usually focus on language, sexual references, and blasphemy.

Yet the nature of identity politics and trigger warnings has little to do with governmental book banning, and usually does not take the form of trying to speak for others. In fact, core to the philosophy of identity politics is the notion that people can’t always speak for each other. Requesting trigger warnings or to opt out is a part of identity politics. Banning books for others assumes ownership of others’ perspectives and by definition becomes a violation of identity politics.

As a society, we’ve included trigger warnings already in many mediums of art. Movies have been receiving ratings in the United States since 1968. Though audiences don’t always agree with specific ratings, knowing if a film is R or PG makes a difference to families and other viewers. More specifically, it’s often explained why a film receives such a rating – nudity, violence, torture? Different audiences will have tolerances for different elements.

It’s done for TV as well, all but a necessity when hundreds of channels are available. Viewers can see in written, televised, and Internet guides the topic matter, ratings, and descriptions of various shows and even episodes. This helps them decide whether it is something they’ll be comfortable watching.

Consumers are very comfortable with certain types of trigger warnings when they’re applied to recreational activities. Why should they be uncomfortable with them when applied to educational ones?

More to the point, students are paying for a service and with higher education becoming increasingly restructured along for-profit avenues, is there a reason they shouldn’t follow suit in the treatment of their education?

There’s the rather famous Vox article by Edward Schlosser, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” in which the argument becomes something more political. Identity politics, it argues, shouldn’t matter. They merely elevate perceived slights, according to Schlosser, and specifically aim to threaten the careers of white males. Some argued back that this was the elevation of a perceived slight on Schlosser’s part. It also resulted in his supporters threatening the life of a woman whose tweet about focusing on people of color in science he quoted.

Vox also published Koritha Mitchell’s response to Schlosser, “I’m a professor. My colleagues who let their students dictate what they teach are cowards.” The truth of the matter, Mitchell argues, is that when these identity politics are utilized on behalf of focusing on white male authors and perspectives, they’re simply interpreted as maintaining how the education system is built to work. When these identity politics are called upon to argue for greater inclusion of the perspectives of women and people of color, they are interpreted as challenging how the education system is built to work.

“It is worth asking, Who can most afford to teach in ways that are least likely to inspire controversy?” she wrote. “Those who are not immediately hurt by dominant ideas.”

Consider the case of Chiitaanibah Johnson, at Cal State Sacramento University. When a professor spoke about the extermination of Native Americans during North America’s colonialist period, he refused to use the word “genocide.” He described genocide as “the deliberate killing of another people, a sterilization of people, and/or a kidnapping of their children,” all of which did occur during the conquest and colonization of what is now the United States.

When Johnson pressed her case that this was genocide, class was dismissed and she was allegedly informed that she was disenrolled from the class, a decision the professor was not allowed to make and that was later reversed by the university.

In this case, is the professor really more qualified on this topic than Johnson, who is Navajo and Maidu? Does her cultural experience give her better qualification on the topic than he possesses? Are there situations when professors must admit they can’t know everything, or that someone with unique experience in a classroom may hold knowledge that they do not? Does a professor really know more about the specialties and cultures of every student in his or her classes than each of those 100 or so students do? The perception that the professor is always right or that the professor can never be questioned raises some alarming notions about the structure of education as a process of one-way dictation rather than one of collaboration.

As Mitchell wrote, “No matter the topic, power dynamics matter, so it is intellectually dishonest to ignore them in any discussion. To acknowledge power, I call my students’ attention to the fact that dominant ideas parade as ‘natural’ ‘truth’ rather than as a particular worldview.”

One of the biggest problems in this conversation revolves around the conflation of trigger warnings and censorship. It mistakes something that comes from the top-down, like censorship and book burning, from something that comes from the ground-up, like social change.

Another problem is the confusion of trigger warnings based on PTSD, a very real psychological condition, with “oversensitivity,” as Atlantic’s firebrand “The Coddling of the American Mind” does. “It’s hard to imagine how novels illustrating classism and privilege could provoke or reactivate the kind of terror that is typically implicated in PTSD,” it argues, without acknowledging the implicit bias and explicit violence victims of class, race, and privilege often must cope with. Yet it goes on to say that students with anxiety should be handled differently.

The problem lies in who’s best qualified to judge these psychological conditions. A literature professor who must do so for each of 100 students, or the students who individually live with these conditions on a daily basis? Consider Johnson once more, and the argument over genocide. Is Johnson or the professor more qualified to judge the terminology that should be applied to the military conquest, ghettoization, re-education, and bounty hunting of her people?

And what about Shultz? Is she the exception, or the rule? Will these sorts of opt-outs and requests for trigger warnings hamstring colleges and professors at the expense of political statements? Or is such fear just that – a fear of changing for the students who really need it because a few who don’t may take advantage? Either way, colleges may not get much of a choice. It’s not as if it’s a topic anyone gets to vote on. The students themselves will decide through their actions, and it might be worth noting that students haven’t guided us wrong in previous generations.

In reality, is the argument over trigger warnings and identity politics much different from when Baby Boomers argued for the greater inclusion of women and black faculty and students in higher education? The immediate reaction was to claim this groundswell was an invisible infection of communism. Nonetheless, progress was made in these areas. Women and people of color today have greater access to higher education than they did in the 1960s. Now, they seek to have their perspectives more fully included.

In fact, two of our presidential candidates, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, led protests against their colleges as students. They pressured the institutions to be more inclusive of black students, faculty, and studies. What’s happening now is nothing new. It’s been going on since higher education was systematized. In fact, the issues being debated haven’t even changed all that much. We just use Internet-era words to describe them now.

Where do you come down on the debate over trigger warnings? Do you think they refine higher education, or threaten it?




Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.