Political Correctness Gone Sad: On Trigger Warnings and the Appropriation of Trauma

Good news for US exports this month. Australia, my adoptive country, has also adopted the trigger warning. Taking its lead from US campuses, Melbourne’s Monash University has obliged its academic staff to review their course materials with the aim of identifying content that may be “emotionally confronting” for students, and is set to attach fifteen advisory statements to subjects dealing with, inter alia, racism, torture, homophobia and colonialism. All very exotic in a country revered for its colourful language and casual racism, but that’s the power of globalisation. And they say the American Century is over.

Not everyone is happy about the new arrival. Following their US counterparts (the reaction, too, has an imported feel), critics of “political correctness” have declared the adoption of trigger warnings to be a new front in the culture wars and the heir to such PC atrocities as affirmative action and university speech codes. According to this line of argument, trigger warnings are a Trojan horse from which the polo-necked Foucauldian foot-soldiers will emerge the moment Professor Tomnoddy brandishes his Amontillado-stained copy of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. “Sensitivity” is code for censorship and the imposition of radical values on the entire academic cohort.

Notwithstanding the muscular, male-menopausal, almost vaudevillian liberalism with which their animadversions come served, these critics aren’t completely wrong. Trigger warnings are political and do derive, via a circuitous route, from the cultural “turn” in leftwing politics in the late 1960s and 1970s. But they are not political in the way conservatives or classical liberals think they’re political, being neither an assault on “academic freedom” nor a Marcusean attempt to drive the sacred cows of tradition, “Western Civ.” etc. towards the abattoir of Cultural Marxism. Possibly there’s a bit of that, but my strong sense is that what we’re dealing with here is a new form of subjectivity that regards the expression of personal hurt, not just as a form of political agency, but as the very stuff of politics itself. Like their close cousins “safe spaces” and “microaggressions”, trigger warnings represent a new political epistemology.  [More here.]