Opinion | Tarzan and trigger warnings: should Bristol relabel its library?


By Alex O’Brien, History, Second Year

The time is six minutes past nine in the morning, the kettle’s boiling, and the Baltic wasteland that is my university house mocks me, as I shiver in my dressing gown and crocs. It has taken little more than three downward scrolls on ‘Tiktok’ to reach a video concerning the strain that this life can have on students’ mental well-being.

*Sips tea*

But all is not lost, with the arrival of the news that the University of Leeds has placed trigger warnings on 43 pieces of literature. This allows students to mentally prepare themselves to digest topics which may cause internal discomfort before beginning their studies.

Just one of the books to which the University of Leeds is planning to add a trigger warning | Credit : Pinterest

Does this signify a much-needed change? Is this the beginning of a new culture at these institutions? One that places the wellbeing of its students at paramount importance.

I think not.

I’ll concede that, at first, any warning which might make the life of a student who has experienced trauma easier certainly sounds like a positive idea.

Students with wide ranging experiences and identities are certain to have different ‘triggers’

However, this governance of literature comes with more complications than the issues which it seeks to solve. Not only this, but it draws attention away from the fundamental issues that universities are struggling to deal with: namely the supply of student mental-health support networks, and attitudes towards the topic in general.

Far be it for me to start blathering about ‘bubbles’ that keep students out of the real world, as I know that there are a great many who would argue the case that ‘the real world doesn’t come with trigger warnings.’

You’ve probably heard the argument, and it has some merit. University should prepare us for the harsh realities of adult life. But it’s a simplistic and often underdeveloped line of reason, which undermines the real issues at hand here.

Firstly, the selection of what topics constitute as worthy of being cited as a ‘trigger warning’ will always be subjective. Students with wide ranging experiences and identities are certain to have different ‘triggers’, like everybody else on the planet. Somebody must select those warnings that they deem to be the most important.

I think the majority of us subscribe to the idea that no one person’s experience on this planet should necessarily outweigh another’s, and so the implementation of trigger warnings is the beginning of an impractical system that has no end in sight.

Let's make the idea of seeking help seem more possible in the first place

This is not to say that just because we cannot encompass the triggers of everybody, that it’s not worth trying at all.

But rather that the list of triggers, if it is to fulfil its true purpose for everyone, is surely indefinite in its quantity, and the more warnings added to the top of that list, the further the entire concept becomes undermined.

If this were truly carried out fairly, we would reach a point in which every book had a huge number of triggers, many of them shared between one another, achieving the effect of no triggers at all.

‘Oh, this has X and X and X etc, but so does everything else, thanks for telling me.’

Instead of throwing out easy initiatives that look good in a headline (or look good to most university students, who have often felt the distance between themselves and the aid of their institutions), let’s promote practical, intimate relationships between student and University that help to properly tackle the issues and individual traumas being experienced.

Increase the supply of councillors, shorten the waiting list, make the idea of seeking help seem more possible in the first place.

For the University of Bristol to employ this concept would be little more than to continue a process of meek mental health management from afar, when what students need is to know that there is actually somebody there to support them.

Besides, for the debt we’re taking on, I really think there ought to be.

Featured image: Unsplash | Annie Spratt

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