on trigger warnings

A discussion on Twitter (although “discussion” is, of course, a rather problematic concept in that context, natch), prompts the following.

I painted myself into a corner by coming out against trigger warnings on syllabuses. I have no interest in rehashing the conversation in which this happened, and I am pretty sure I was making one or two (or eight) wrong assumptions about what other people were saying when I entered the conversation, which prompts me to think that joining any conversation only happens under a condition of misreading the conversation in its extant form, in the way that Bloom talks about misreading, except for social media rather than poetry (and I suppose that the lyric poem was social media before social media; “Watching the cows again. I am such an I.”)

In any case, I have no problems with professors who wish to include trigger warnings on a syllabus, or who wish to warn students in lecture about violent or other graphic content in a film, novel, artwork, etc. (I assume that sound I am hearing is everyone breathing a sigh of relief). I do exactly the latter when I teach Ballard’s Crash or Ellis’ American Psycho. No doubt I could do so with other texts as well. I offer these warnings because I think it’s good pedagogy for me to do so. As someone on Twitter mentioned, we need to prepare students to read difficult things. That’s part of the job, or maybe just “that’s the job”. At the same time, as other people mentioned (mainly me I think), we need to assume that students have some background that allows them to read difficult material. It seems to me that warnings need to find a balance between such things. As such, it will be (and should be I think) difficult to discern between texts that need warnings and those that don’t (or simply need them less).

Complicating this issue is the fact that students come to the class with very different backgrounds, and not only in terms of education. Such difference defeats our expectations as teachers to the point where having any expectation might come back to haunt us. (A common refrain department meetings, in my experience, has to do with how bad at writing English majors are. Faculty discover this every term, after the first written assignment for the most part and are dismayed, again every term, that they have to teach some writing, that their expectations were not in line with reality. I recall a David Foster Wallace essay on bad grammar and how he winds up turning every course into a writing course after he discovers, yet again, how bad students are at writing after collecting their first bit of written work.) To say as much is perhaps as banal as can be, so I won’t belabor the point beyond saying that it will be difficult if not impossible to accommodate everyone’s triggers a priori. As such, students need to participate in their own education to some degree and help the professor understand what their specific situations are, especially when it comes to texts in those greyer areas alluded to above. I am fully aware that even the students most motivated to such participation will have difficulty in this regard, but on the other side professors have the same difficulty. Of course, I also realize that it’s the professor’s job to deal with such issues, but I also believe that education must be active rather than passive. The blanket call for trigger warnings (which were not being made by my Twitter interlocutors, my misunderstanding to the contrary) seems to go hand in hand, in my mind, with not only a broad sanitizing of culture, but also with the production of passive readers. More on this below.

First, note that the active engagement on the part of students, and their capacity to tell instructors about what might cause them trauma (or offense) opens up a further complication, namely that the classroom experience can begin to cater to increasingly the specific whims of individuals. Lest there be any confusion: Survivors of rape and other violence do not have “whims” about their pasts or their traumas. Their concerns are legitimate and must be addressed. Full stop. Knowing that there are such legititmate concerns in a given classroom will be difficult for instructors, but difficulty here is no excuse to not think or work hard to make the classroom a space of learning rather than one of shock (I believe the latter inhibits the former). As such, it is wise and necessary to prepare students for the material, but again in the name and vocabulary of pedagogy and scholarly inquiry rather than that of “triggers” and the potentially offensive.

However, there are what to my mind non-controversial facts (or what ought to be non-controversial facts) that have become so highly politicized that they can cause offense to people on the other side of the “debate” (you can guess at these if you like). When “affluenza” is a thing, one upon which the outcome of court cases can hinge, how can the individual professor know what is and is not a legitimate condition? (Affluenza is merely an example here from broader culture, not an example of something that will come up in this narrower context.) How can a professor know in every case, or even a preponderance of cases, what texts might need a warning, what representations are so graphic that they need comment? To be clear again: there are many instances of trauma that cannot and should be questioned here. Anyone who questions a rape survivor or someone with PTSD of one origin or another, or who cannot recognize why American Psycho is a problematic text (or numerous others) is beneath contempt. Full stop. But what about the greyer areas? And what about political objections? What about a student who reacts badly to material but who has no previous history or trauma? I realize that I have fallen into “just asking questions” mode, and that is not my intent. I would very much like to know, and am very receptive to thoughts from others, on how to make distinctions between texts that need warnings and those which do not, as well as on how to distinguish students’ legitimate conditions from personal whim or mere belief, however sincerely held (this last point an important one given that several experts expect Hobby Lobby to be successful in their suit demanding their right to deny contraception coverage under the ACA because of their “sincerely held belief” that such a thing is wrong).

To return to an earlier point, and with all awareness that claims about “slippery slopes” should not be mistaken for truths, the increased focus on the trigger warning seems to me part of a larger process by which, on the one hand, culture becomes sanitized and, on the other, readers become increasingly passive. The two issue are directly related to one another. I tend to offer warnings to students when we read texts that have forced me to think hard and in ways that make me uncomfortable. Is Mark Twain racist? Is Ellis a misogynist, or satirizing misogyny? Does Ballard create the very inhumanity he seems to be critiquing? Should we allow ourselves to be educated by difficult texts into new modes of knowing or being, or should we judge them according to older modes? What older modes? How do we know that the time has come for a new one? What power does the new one serve? If I find myself asking these questions, I find myself thinking that students might need a warning and I also find myself knowing that students need to read these texts, with the caveat that some students might need to be excused for legitimate reasons. They need to read these texts because these texts produce active readings, even if that reading begins only with “I hate it.” Asking why one hates something is a productive question and getting beyond “just because” or “it’s stupid” requires and leads to very good conversation (for the most part–someone will always say “That novel was stupid” on the FCQs, even for relatively non-problematic texts such as The Great Gatsby or The Return of the King). When we focus on “trigger warnings” and notions of offensiveness, we move the conversation outside the parameters of education and debate and into the realm of the radical individual whose tastes determine all. Education does not take place outside the context of a we, and a we cannot obtain when individuals do not discuss. I am not referring here to “snowflake millennials” but rather to American culture broadly, in which having it “your way” has become the norm for any segment of society privileged enough to have or afford a way of its own (a segment of society from which a  fair number of college students come) and the incommensurability of the points of view espoused by talking heads on cable news is taken for granted, with the answer always being “in the middle” or a “third way” that is idealized as a view from nowhere but actually never found or produced. Since privileged segments of society–the very ones that claim this view from nowhere–drive the agenda and have become commonplace in my experience as a watcher of news and as a teacher (cf numerous students who have told me in one context or another how they pay my salary), we run a risk of allowing the privileged to not ever confront what they  find offensive to their privilege.

Finally, the idea of the trigger warning seems to me to grant far too much power to representation and, when it is called a “trigger warning,” implies that texts in fact have a certain amount of control over us. I see myself as someone who helps people overcome representation, someone who helps people understand how representations work against implicit and explicit (video games make us serial killers and what not) cultural claims that representations are dangerous and must be regulated in some manner. I am not worried about being censored as a teacher here, and do not think that this issue is one of censorship in this respect. Rather, I think it has to do with the issue of representation itself, how much power we grant it, and the critical tools we need to understand it. This issue seems pressing to me in a time when representations such as “fair and balanced” are asserted and made to be or taken true without regard to any sort of actual truth.

Again, and for the final time, I am not arguing in any way against legitimate trauma as a reason for excusing a student from an assignment or against thinking hard about what texts need warnings. Moreover, I worry very much about my own capacities to make such judgements and about the ways my own very real privileges might blind me to the situations of other people who have lived through such trauma. In the end I too (following someone on Twitter) am arguing for a “thinking harder” about this issue. What I am trying to add to the conversation (I did not see it earlier today on Twitter, although I expect most will agree with me here), is the idea that part of this “thinking harder” includes a contextual shift that focuses on pedagogy and the situation of the “trigger warning” in broader cultural issues having to do with the manner in which culture is made safe and how this safety produces passive readers rather than active ones.


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