Sunday, May 18, 2014


The New York Times has a story today about campus activists who are pressing colleges for trigger warnings:
Should students about to read "The Great Gatsby" be forewarned about "a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence," as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism -- like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "Things Fall Apart" -- have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as "trigger warnings," explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools....
This issue splits the left: on Twitter there's a lot of liberal scorn, as well as equal scorn for the scornful (the pro-warning argument is that the notifications are small and easily ignored by people who don't need them).

My gut reaction to trigger warnings is negative -- and yet I see the appropriateness of being sensitive to survivors of war, sexual violence, childhood abuse, and so on.

I think I'm resistant because of the way trigger warnings are often done. Online, a trigger warning tends to precede content in a way that stops the presentation of that content dead in its tracks for a moment. It's a HERE BE MONSTERS sign everyone has to pass under before getting to the content.

And where trigger warnings are in place, there often seems to be a sort of mission creep. After a while, the warnings aren't just about the sort of material that might recall violent trauma a reader might have experienced; they're about, well, everything bad in the world.

This is why I avoid Melissa McEwan's Shakesville, which I used to read regularly. Go there and you'll see trigger warnings like this:

Seriously? For a post titled "Brown v. Board of Ed" you need a warning that it's going to discuss racism and segregation? And are these, and class warfare, actual psychological triggers likely to induce post-traumatic stress? Graphic depictions or descriptions of civil-rights-era violence, sure -- those might benefit from a warning. But there's nothing of the sort in the linked post. Why is a warning appropriate?

Ultimately, I think the prominent display of this sort of thing runs the risk of turning traumatization into the new gluten sensitivity. Yes, some people actually suffer post-traumatic reactions to certain content, just as some people actually have celiac disease and need to avoid gluten to safeguard their physical health. But gluten avoidance has become a food fad -- and putting a HERE BE MONSTERS frame around writing and art may become an academic fad, as more and more people express sensitivities they don't really have, or assume sensitivities in people who haven't actually expressed them.

My solution: generate the warnings and make them available on request and online. Make them easy to find for anyone who needs them -- but underplay them. I think it's good that people with nut allergies can find allergen notices by reading side-panel labels on packaged foods. I think it's also good when the rest of us find them easy to ignore. That's the right balance.


Victor said...

"My solution: generate the warnings and make them available on request and online. Make them easy to find for anyone who needs them -- but underplay them."

I whole-heartedly agree.

Most of the joy, beauty, and grandeur of great literature and art, is the wonder of discovery.

If you know too much, or are predisposed to a certain thinking, then part of that joy, beauty, and grandeur, are tamped down.

I've read a lot of the great literary works in my life. And most of them, I read outside of school.
Ditto, art works and museums.

And I read some knowing what the book was about, and a lot, not.
The pleasure of the work of art, is in the discovery.

You can read any book, or look at visual art, or listen to something, for school, and then discuss the racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and/or whatever other "phobia" there is in the work.

But let the students enjoy the work of art first, and let them discover what THEY see in it - and THEN talk about it, and how that work is viewed today.

Not everything in life needs a warning label.
But it should be available for those who want one.

I wouldn't want one - but, that's me.

aimai said...

Speaking as a feminist I hate the whole warning "triggering" crap. I don' t think it does anyone any good and I very much doubt it does any actual trauma survivor any kind of good. If you are going to be "triggered" by any and everything you are basically declaring that you are incapable of handling the world you are stuck with after your trauma. Even if that is true the world doesn't stop turning so you might just as well climb back into your room/womb and stop existing in public. Things *can* be traumatic for a given individual but they won't overcome that trauma by avoiding all discussion, imagery, and public discussion. They will only end discussion of important topics.

I'm not arguing that people who are teachers, or public artists, or politicians, shouldn't be careful about exploiting or graphically representing certain horrors. But grown up persons have to be able to handle knowing that shit may get real and difficult topics may be discussed. The warnings don't do anything to prevent inappropriate or stupid discussions of (for example) rape or genocide.

I'm all for sensitivity training--especially given that a subject matter expert on something that they think of literary or historical may not have the psychological or personal experience to handle the wide variety of issues that their students may present. But it is absurd to expect that every class is going to be run as a therapeutic clinic for people who need to be treated as psych patients.

Dark Avenger said...

In my limited experience(caution, one anecdote does not equal data) people who have had trauma in their past or PTSD due to bad life experiences get triggered by very specific things, not mentions of a subject/topics related to their trauma.

Ex: My mother survived 18 months in a civilian concentration camp run by the Japanese Imperial Army in Shanghai, China. She could talk about some of her life there without emotion, other subjects, there were still strong feelings that came to the surface when she spoke of them.

I once left a short-wave radio on, and I didn't know the frequency was one used by Japanese radio stations/ham operators as well as the program I had been taping by a timer-controlled cassette recorder.

Well, she heard Japanese coming out of said SW radio, and as she stated, "It scared the shit out of me." It immediately took her back to the camp, psychologically speaking.

It was one of the few times I really saw her in a rage. She knew that it was an accident on my fault, but it still didn't lessen her reaction to it.

But yeah, trigger warnings aren't realistic and are a remnant of the PC policing that used to be common, much to the dismay of some on the left.

Sator Arepo said...

turning traumatization into the new gluten sensitivity

100% this.

BC in Illinois said...

It can also happen, that the warnings become a way of attracting readers. As in the old approach of publishing Latin texts, "with English trot [translation] (except where it's dirty, in which case its facing Latin and Latin, which at least tells you where the good parts are)."

Latina Pro Populo, Humez & Humez

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

We need to develop a way of embedding trigger warnings as metadata, and then developing an optional browser trigger warning reader add-on for people who want trigger warnings.

Dark Avenger said...

Pastor, that reminds me of the opening of Gore Vidals review of Robert Graves "The Twelve Caesar>s":

Tiberius, Capri. Pool of water. Small children... So far so good. One's laborious translation was making awful sense. Then... Fish. Fish? The erotic mental image
became surreal. Another victory for the Loeb Library's sly translator, J.C. Rolfe, who, correctly anticipating the pruriency of schoolboy readers, left Suetonius's gaudier passages in the hard original. One failed to crack those intriguing footnotes not because the syntax was so difficult (though it was not easy for students drilled in military rather than civilian Latin) but because the range of vice revealed was considerably beyond the imagination of even the most depraved schoolboy. There was a point at which one rejected one's own translation. Tiberius and the little fish, for instance.

giantslor said...

Before I heard of trigger warnings (only a few months ago) I thought they were just a quirky feature of Shakesville, sort of calling out the bad guys in blunt terms before the article even began. Now that I know what they are, I'm just like...

giantslor said...

Oops, that should read "I'm just like... (rolls eyes)"

aimai said...

I want to add, though, that some of the people who are behind these requests are experiencing themselves as extremely powerless. This is kind of a grassroots, up from above attempt to exert some kind of control over situations which (I think) lots of people find themselves feeling helpless in. I don't think that is any reason to permit this kind of censorship of teaching and the classroom, but I do think its important to think about ways to help people feel empowered that are not so shitty and weepy and manipulative.

I really dislike this whole "triggering" thing because I think it assumes that other people in the classroom are actively hostile to the student and it also cedes a lot of power to people who may, indeed, be actively hostile. But if you want to win this battle--like the battle to create safe spaces for people to talk about trauma--you've got to be damned couragous and tough and really fight. Not just whine about how bad you feel and appeal to rules or to the better nature of your enemies.

Lymie said...

But it really isn't censorship, and are so easy to ignore. Why not be kind, if you can.. This really is more about shakesville, not so much campus classes.

labradog said...

On the subject of trigger warnings, I
think it's an overblown concept of no
real value, even to Post-traumatic
extremely sensitive types.

Anonymous said...

I have a simpler solution. Embed the warning, with a discussion, in the Introduction, where all students will be sure to read it.

Joseph Nobles said...

A six word bracket tucked under the title is not easy to ignore?

Steve M. said...

Tucked under the title and in the same point size as the main text? No, not really.

Ten Bears said...

When I was teaching (college math, computer science) I would caveat my syllibi "you're welcome to your opinion, but I write the grade."

It's a binary thing. Or Zen. Or not.

No fear.

Lance Mannion said...

I should write my own post on this since I was dealing with it all this past semester. I didn't make a big deal out of it, but you can't introduce a class to movies like 42, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Searchers without alerting students to things they're about to see and hear. My feeling is though is that college comes with a trigger warning: Getting an education requires facing and dealing with unpleasant truths about life in general and your own in particular. Once they know what's coming, it's up to the students to prepare themselves to handle it for purposes of study and discussion.

Now, as for Shakesville, the content and trigger warnings are there for Melissa's community and they are part of her mission, which is to make Shakesville a haven on the web for people who are suffering the effects of traumas and assaults on their persons and psyches and need to feel they have a supportive and understanding company in order to deal with their wounds and fears. The warnings are there to remind readers to be aware of other people's feelings as they enter the conversation.

Steve M. said...

Does she know whether the warnings are well calibrated to what her audience needs? I honestly don't know. I have a hunch that she errs on the side of assuming that some things are triggers that actually aren't. And I think Dark Avenger's comment above is important -- a person who is actually vulnerable to triggers may be more vulnerable to something that's seemingly innocuous than to something that seems overtly unsettling. (I've read several times about veterans who react poorly to cars backfiring, because they sound like weapons fire.) So is Melissa giving her audience what they need, or what she thinks they need?

Lance Mannion said...

Steve M,

She has to do both. But she spends a great deal of her day interacting with her readers on and off the blog, so she's well keyed in to what they need from her. And she has thousands of readers. It's pretty much a full time job for her and I know it takes a lot out of her. I couldn't handle it.

Steve M. said...

Sorry. She's a secular saint. I'll never utter another skeptical word about her. Mea maxima culpa.

Ten Bears said...

"... react poorly to cars backfireing ..."

You have a talent for understatement.

No fear, just ... attentive.

Unknown said...

It's reacting negatively to cars backfiring, having trouble walking thru parking lots because - well, lots of parked cars, large groups of people, loud people with exaexaggerated physical gestures, people who might be perceived to have a weapon, things that are near the road - like trash bins, piles of leaves, kids playing because well IED...
these are specific things that trigger people.
Just talking about guns, small weapons fire, IEDs, etc doesn't do it.
it's feeling like it happening again and you are trapped theagain the ex

the example with the mother hearing the radio is perfect, and even SHE might'nt have know THAT was a trigger until it just was.

Unknown said...

I was a regular Shakesville visitor until a comment of mine was deleted because of a trigger, a concept I'd never heard of until then. I thought my comment was innocuous, but I guess I was wrong; as Lance says, it's Melissa's community with its own standards. Still, I've never gone back. That was four years ago.

I'm not so presumptuous as to tell rape victims what they should be able to deal with, nor am I so arrogant as to tell them to "get over it." Still, it rubbed me the wrong way to have my comment deleted on the outside chance that some unknown reader might not just be offended by it but literally be cast into a violent flashback. That did not seem reasonable to me. First of all, what are the chances? Second of all, as others have suggested above, that does not seem to be a rewarding and productive way to go through life.