Trigger Warnings Fail to Serve Intended Purpose

CJ Blair, Columnist

Last Friday night, I was lucky enough to see the Oberlin Theater Department’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. I was blown away at how the actors, musicians and stage crew modernized Brecht’s complex, meandering play and injected it with as much energy as such a difficult script could allow. I was less impressed by the playbill I received when I walked into the theater. Taking up nearly an entire single-spaced page was a list of potential trigger warnings, all of which were repeated verbally before the show began. My feelings about the trigger warnings have been mounting in intensity all year, and this performance made me realize I had to express them.

One of the most paradoxical aspects of Oberlin is that its emphatically liberal students go out of their way to be as outrageous as possible, but have to do so without stepping on landmines, wary of offending anyone. Just think about it. Oberlin doesn’t just have a cooperative dining system; it has one where most meals are dominated by discussions about accessibility and consideration of all members, with little to no room to socialize. Similarly, Drag Ball isn’t an open event but an expensive, ticketed occasion that requires students to attend a workshop and strain their already-tight pockets in order to attend. Don’t take this to mean I’m disparaging conscientiousness. I’m merely suggesting that, while students think they have the best intentions in doing these things, these initiatives become not only pedantic but detrimental to achieving their intended goal.

Oberlin’s reputation as a radically leftist institution doesn’t bode well with suggestions that it calm its politics. But if our goal is promoting awareness and sensibility that simply isn’t seen in the world, it’s in our best interest to be sure we’re doing so in a way that can practically be applied to the real world. I understand that events like the pre-Drag Ball workshops are attempts at embracing non-traditional identities, but they might actually do the opposite. Addressing a specific orientation or identity and holding it above the rest is like putting a caged elephant on display and always talking about it but telling people not to look. Oberlin fails to normalize these identities, and when the student body — composed mostly of cisgender white women — endlessly advocates for their relevance, the only thing that benefits is the conscience of those students.

The most direct manifestations of this dilemma are the trigger warnings that preview potentially upsetting content presented in and outside of the classroom. The playbill for The Caucasian Chalk Circle warned audiences of incest, violence, rape, language and other content that I don’t think was even present in the show. A similar warning accompanies documentary footage in my Modern South Asia class. But where do you draw the line? Of course, certain content tends to shock many viewers, but it’s all but impossible to know what every parent is scared of their child seeing or whether a particular scene will trigger an unwanted memory in a viewer. If not everyone can be accounted for, as Oberlin tries to ensure, then are we actually perpetuating the cycle of ostracizing and alienation that we try so hard to prevent?

In a way, Oberlin students are so far away from being Puritans that they’ve almost come full circle and become Puritans themselves. We really hate how everyone around us casts off the things we love as strange and deviant, so we flocked to this college hoping to escape that. We want to have fun, but an expectation of consideration and mindfulness for “good liberals” is encroaching on our ability to do so and making us realize how hard it is to be mindful of everyone.

There’s no denying that Oberlin students have big hearts and want to include everyone whenever they can. But maybe quiet acceptance, rather than the silent disdain seen in the outside world, is the better path to that goal. Maybe an embrace of all the sex, drugs and violence of R-rated content will allow the artistic, rather than provocative, intentions of such content to shine through. Maybe the path to normalizing that which has been deemed abnormal is the acceptance that such identities and content shouldn’t be glorified but smoothly integrated into a world insistent on keeping them irrelevant.