Forgive me, if you will, but let me take you back to yesterday. The Carolina Panthers are trouncing the Dallas Cowboys, you hoist yet another beverage as you ponder the average length of a Rockette’s leg from the toe to the end of her flesh-colored tights, and your drunken uncle is trying to convince you that the pyramids were actually grain silos. You smell it, right? The tantalizing scent of roasting turkey.
But that smell has a dark side, a dreary side, a traumatic side. When it comes down to it, the smell of roasting turkey is a trigger warning, a signal that what is about to happen next can conjure up feelings that might make you uncomfortable.
For some it will be of Thanksgivings past, most notably that time your cousin Jed flipped over the table because Gran Gran forgot to make green bean casserole. Or it could simply be because you are reminded of what transpired after that joyous Thanksgiving Day hundreds of years of ago between the Plymouth Rockers and the Wampanoag: disease, destitution, and decimation. In many cases, this reminder of our shared history of horror is too much to bear. Which is why we need trigger warnings, like the smell of roasting turkey, to help the strong among us to prepare ourselves for what comes next and prompt the weak to head home to Netflix and chill with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s and a slightly overweight tabby.
Hopefully, I’m not the first person to tell you about trigger warnings. They’ve become rather popular on college campuses these days, and they’ve been in the news as late. But for those of you who don’t know about them, they work like this: your world literature prof has just assigned Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a classic work of Western literature that features the rape of the heroine Proserpina. As such, said professor tells students before sending them out of class that the text in question may cause some of them considerable distress, particularly those who suffer from the traumatic experience of sexual assault or molestation.
Now many have bemoaned the need for trigger warnings, proclaiming that today’s college students are far too sensitive. After all, past generations seemed to digest Ovid without any signs of distress.
These same critics are also likely to ridicule the current call for campus safe spaces, places where female, minority, and LBGT students feel comfortable simply being who they are without fear of reprisal from the bro-eds and bleach-blond sorostikas that seemingly dominate campus.
While it’s easy to tell today’s safe spacers to just buck up — especially since those that came before them faced far worse harassment and discrimination on campus — the source of their fears are very much real: universities routinely cover up campus rapes, being black itself is sometimes viewed as a crime, LGBT bigotry still continues, and we’ve got a presidential candidate who is one step away from calling for concentration camps for a particular religious group.
And these threats don’t even take into account the dreary world these students face once they graduate, a world of zero to no job prospects, insurmountable student loan debt, unequal wages, endless war, horrible pandemics, and random mass shootings.
Strangely enough, a very similar fear has been driving the disenfranchised white Right in America since at least Sept. 11, 2001. And while they can always point to a couple of choice anecdotes — a revolving-door drug dealer who murders a newly married white couple in a home invasion or an illegal immigrant who kills a family of five WASPers in a drunk driving accident — few, if any, have faced any real threats other than the regular tongue lashing they receive from their boss, their ice-cold spouses, or the pink elephant in the room that spits oxycontin out of its ethereal head like a prescription Pez dispenser.
Still, the reasons for their concerns are very real and very troubling. After all, they live in a world where the powerful never pay for their crimes, their jobs routinely go overseas while they watch those who engineered the economic collapse land safety on the ground thanks to golden parachutes, and they see government assistance going to people who aren’t even legal Americans. And these frightened white Righters are powerless to do anything about it. They are victims, albeit victims of their own orchestrations; after all, they routinely elect leaders who campaign on the promise to deregulate industry, cut taxes for the rich, and strip away funding for government entitlement programs.
Not surprisingly, they gravitate toward those leaders who vow to help them fight back against their perceived attackers, the minorities, the immigrants, and female video-game journalists who are changing the very essence of the America, or at least the Beaver Cleaver hegemony they long for.
But there is a key difference between these two groups: the middle- and lower-class white Right are becoming disenfranchised while the college kids, particularly the young women — minority or otherwise — who are the driving forces in today’s protest movement, are being empowered, perhaps for the first time in their lives. The world is theirs for the taking — particularly women who now outnumber men on college campuses — and they’re not afraid to face those who have kept them down. And for that, they should be applauded.
Still, a perpetual war weighs on the soul, even if the fight is noble. The longer you stay in the trenches, the more you risk your sanity. Over time, you begin to see allies as enemies and mistake misguided intentions for sinister conspiracies. And just like that, a preoccupation with trigger warnings has been transformed into a debilitating trigger-happy madness.