What if the demands for trigger warnings aren’t expressions of revulsion at what is but an anticipation and warding off of what could be? Of course they can be and are both. But the accepted assumption that they are indicators of an almost-puritanical aversion to risk misses that they are as much oriented to the future as they are to past trauma and that, in their blithe dismissal of institutional protocol and hierarchy, they exhibit a utopianism that’s about more than just rejection and self-protection. The act of demanding is more akin to workers who move to obtain some degree of control of their workplace, a completely appropriate response to students’ position in the contemporary university.
Of course trigger warnings — under which I’m also including safe spaces and the like — have a conservatizing element. But everything that’s recognizable is conservative — ordered/ordering, formed/forming — in some ways. The more interesting questions are about how things are conserved, who decides how they are ordered, and how the burden of risk is distributed. Those are the questions that the demands for trigger warnings are forcing, and it’s not surprising that the people who seem to be reacting most strongly against their being raised are academics, aspiring and established, who were promised full control of their workplace environment. These academics often present their objections as a radical embrace of risk, experimentation, and unbounded learning, but the idea that students should be empty receptacles for professors’ presentation of an already-formed canon is itself highly conservative, based as it is on institutional hierarchy, credentialed mastery of subject matter, and a lot of other accepted truths about how an education should be achieved.
It’s no coincidence that these issues and antagonisms seem to have become acute as more people, and more different kinds of people, pursue higher education than ever have before. For most of the history of universities, until the last 40 years, say, the people allowed to attend them was highly circumscribed — monied (or those who had proved their merit), white, and male, by and large. There was no need for content warnings because the community was already defined. The university was, in other words, its own kind of safe space.
The challenge presented by trigger warnings and safe spaces is that those who demand them want to redefine that space for themselves. This will probably inspire some conservative fortifications and violent exclusions, and those should be criticized and defeated. But there is nothing inherently conservative about people attempting to define the space they want to occupy, just as there is nothing politically radical about defending institutions and processes that structurally obstruct those attempts.