Trigger Warning: Mao’s Cultural Revolution

Jenny Jarvie has a piece in The New Republic about trigger warnings, the phenomenon in which people warn others that the content of some piece might trigger emotional trauma for certain people. The author does not like them, bemoans their spread to college classes, and thinks there is no logical stopping point once you begin to provide them.

I can’t get too worked up one way or another about the idea of providing warning. The troubling issue is not the demand for warnings; rather, it is using the possibility of triggering to demand that some idea not be uttered at all. I had this happen to me last week in a way that I thought was somewhat amusing, and which I hope will illuminate my point.

The context is that the super-rich Beacon Hill residents of Boston are refusing to put in amenities like curb cut-outs that would make the area accessible to the handicapped. The neighborhood commission refused to do so because “they believed, among other things, that the bumpy plastic strips would mar the neighborhood’s Colonial-era character.”

I commented somewhat half-jokingly, but also somewhat seriously that:

I am against character and would vote to tear down beacon hill and put up housing project towers, but that’s just me.

This was the totally genuine response I was met with:

Matt, that’s not a joke – tearing down antiquities is what Maoist zealots in Cultural Revolution did and that was a tremendous loss for China (where I am from). Saying things like this is a trigger for people like my dad

If the concept of triggers prevents someone from saying we should replace a bunch of single-family homes occupied by the super-rich in the core of an expensive, heavily-populated city with high-rise, affordable housing because those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution might be disturbed, I’d say it has probably been taken too far.