Memorials and trigger warnings

Today (Monday, 25 May 2015), the United States celebrates Memorial Day, to honor the fallen of all American wars. The tradition itself dates back to about three years after the end of the American Civil War with the rise of Decoration Days, where the graves of dead soldiers would be adorned with flowers to commemorate and honor the lives lost. The day did not expand to include those who died in all American wars, not only the Civil War, until an act of Congress named Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971, and moved its official date to the last Monday in May. Despite its history, Memorial Day is now thought of predominately as the ‘unofficial start of summer,’ and more are perhaps involved in barbecues or family events rather than public acts of remembrance.

But, it is at this time in history, when we speak so much about Freedom and Rights and Liberty and ‘true’ Patriotism that we should become more aware about why we celebrate this day in the first place. It is no secret that in this country especially, we take certain things, both positive and negative, for granted. It is also no secret that we have a habit of fundamentally misunderstanding our freedom, rights, and history so long as it helps us to continue the ideological wars that dominate and define contemporary culture.

As an academic, and perhaps, as an academic with a background in anthropology, globalization and human rights, I cannot take for granted the freedom to learn that was available in this country. Education, especially, humanities and liberal arts education, is what helps us to expand our worldviews so that we can not only empathize with others, but also better understand our privilege. This is why I must profess an unpopular opinion, loosely tied to what we are meant to honor on Memorial Day.

“Trigger warnings” is a phrase coined in the 1970s as part of a push to understand the plight of soldiers returning from Vietnam, and the problems they faced returning to ‘normal’ society. This is, of course, something that we do not have a clear understanding of to this day, or real emotional or social infrastructures in place to help facilitate the transition home. However, ‘trigger warnings’ have also become a cultural buzzword over the last couple years, as part of a demand that students should be warned about every little thing that might make them uncomfortable while pursuing university studies.

While valid points about trauma and cultural bias do arise, the conversation misses one very important point: studying literature, history, or any of the humanities is not meant to be comfortable or safe. It is not meant to be easy. It is the closest the masses can get to immersing themselves in what previous generations suffered to earn us the privileges and rights that we so often take for granted today. To self-censor is to undermine academic communities dedicated to intellectual growth—one does not go to university only to learn what one wants or what one already knows. The worldview from which the individual stands should not supersede the pursuit of common knowledge and understanding which facilitates empathy and understanding across time and space and culture, in favor of one generation’s general mental comfort.


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