Trigger Warnings Triggering Memories of Teaching From Long Ago

A different kind of Trigger…

There are two articles making the rounds about trigger warnings of late. There’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” in The Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. And there’s (at least one) response to it, “The Trigger Warning Myth” in New Republic and by Aaron R. Hanion. By “trigger warning,” both articles are talking about the warning given to an audience (students) to a text, movie, or whatever else that might have disturbing content.  While doing a quick search for a definition of trigger warning to quote, I also found out that the AAUP’s position on this is that trigger warnings are a threat to academic free speech. In any event, Lukianoff and Haidt thinks trigger warnings are an example of how we’re coddling the “kids today,” Hanion thinks that’s a myth.

It’s a complicated issue and I think critics like Lukianoff and Haidt have a point. Law students calling the use of the word “violation” a microagression doesn’t make sense, especially in the context of studying law. But I tend to side with Hanion’s view and that most of what Lukianoff and Haidt write are wrong, and as I understand trigger warnings, I think they have the exact opposite effect of censorship, contrary to the AAUP’s position on this. Hanion writes:

The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.

And a bit later, this longer passage:

While a miniscule number of colleges and universities have gone so far as to codify trigger warnings for professors, most trigger warnings exist as a pedagogical choice that professors make in situations over which we exercise considerable control. (And have existed as such for much longer than the present debate suggests: While “trigger warning” was not part of my vocabulary as an undergraduate, introductory comments like “we’re going to spend some time today on lynching images, so prepare yourselves for graphic and difficult material” were indeed.)

Professors give warnings of all sorts that, when not explicitly entangled in the national politics of political correctness, amount less to coddling than to minimizing chances of disengagement with material. “Block off more time this weekend than you usually do, since the reading for Monday is a particularly long one,” for instance, is a reasonable way of reducing the number of students who show up unprepared by issuing a warning. “Today we’re discussing a poem about rape, so be prepared for some graphic discussion, and come to office hours if you have things to say about the poem that you’re not comfortable expressing in class,” meanwhile, is a similarly reasonable way of relieving the immediate pressure to perform in class, which stresses out so many students.

Most of my teaching nowadays at the undergraduate level doesn’t merit trigger warnings (“just to let you all know: today we’re going to be talking about HTML and CSS” or “Hang on everyone, because today we’re going to talk about how writing is actually a technology”). But I’ve used the kinds of benign warnings that Hanion talks about with some controversial readings and activities in the past (and I’m likely to do that again this fall since I’m going to have students spending a little time with Yik Yak), though I didn’t call them “trigger warnings;” no one did until recently.

If anything, the current argument seems to parallel the debate about “political correctness” way back when, and more or less, the politics are the same in that the more conservative view is that trigger warnings/political correctness are silly. I think both trigger warnings and political correctness can be silly, but it also seems to me that they are also both gestures toward both civility and empathy with an audience. In other words, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.

But thinking about this a bit more the other day triggered a teaching memory for me. It was when I was at Southern Oregon and in 1997 or so. It was a specific time where I didn’t give enough warning and where the shit kind of hit the fan. I didn’t get into any actual trouble with an administrator of some sort, but I did have students leaving class in tears. It was a time where maybe more of a warning would have helped, or maybe it was an example of how trigger warnings can only do so much.

And not so much as a trigger warning as a spoiler alert about the rest of this post: after the jump, I give away some key plot/synopsis details about the movies Scream (the first one, from 1996) and a Belgian film released in the U. S. in 1993 under the name Man Bites Dog (the French name was C’est arrivé près de chez vous, which I guess translates basically as It Happened in Your Neighborhood).




The English department at Southern Oregon was small and while everyone had a speciality, everyone also had to pitch in to cover other things (for example, I taught a number of literature classes and intro to literary criticism, stuff I couldn’t teach in my department now even if I wanted to), and there was also a lot of flexibility for us to propose to do new things. So one semester, I taught a topics in film course called “Movies about Movies.” I wasn’t (and am not) a film scholar, but I had taught a course as a graduate student about writing and film, I did read some of film criticism, and I watched a lot of movies– still do, though not as much. I’ve always been interested in various “meta” films like Singing in the Rain and The Player, and I am a fan of the “mockumentary” genre such as Spinal Tap and Bob Roberts, a movie where Tim Robins played a famous conservative folk musician running for president. I even found a pretty decent book to assign, Movies about the Movies: Hollywood Reflected by Christopher Ames.

Toward the end of the class, I decided to show Man Bites Dog, which was probably the most “arty” movie of the bunch. It is usually described as a “black comedy” about a French (or Belgian? I’m not sure which) serial killer named Ben and the documentary film crew who follow him around because they are making a movie about him; eventually, the crew helps Ben in his crimes.

It’s an extremely violent film. The movie opens with a scene in which Ben walks into a train compartment, sits down next to an old lady, chats with her briefly, and then chokes her to death with a piano wire. The scene plays out (more or less) in real time– that is, it goes on for at least five minutes, probably how long it would actually take to strangle an old lady– the camera doesn’t move and the only sound is of the crime and the train. And heightening the whole “cinéma vérité” feel, the movie is in black and white. Probably the most violent scene is summed up by wikipedia like this:

When Ben takes a couple hostage in their own home, he holds the man at gunpoint while he and the crew gang-rape the woman. The following morning, the camera dispassionately records the aftermath: the woman has been butchered with a knife, her entrails spilling out, and the man has been shot to death. Ben’s violence becomes more and more random until he kills an acquaintance in front of his girlfriend and friends during a birthday dinner. Spattered with blood, they act as though nothing horrible has happened, continuing to offer Ben presents. The film crew disposes of the body for Ben.

That’s about how I remember it; I haven’t seen the film again since this class, actually.

Anyway, before we watched the movie, I gave a pretty stern warning about how this was a very disturbing and violent film, probably the most violent film any one of my students had likely seen. Maybe I wasn’t as stern as I thought because most of my students were pretty blasé– violence, shmiolence, bring it on. So the day came and we watched the movie.

I can’t remember how many students I had in the class– at least 30, maybe more– but I remember about a third of them walking out of the movie before it was over, mostly right about at the time of that rape scene. Uh-oh, I thought.

Our class met for the discussion part of things a few days later and obviously, the topic of students leaving class came up.  As I recall it, the students who left– mostly but not exclusively women– said that they just couldn’t take the graphic violence, though they realized I had warned everyone about it. This prompted a pretty good discussion about “movie violence” and a movie that had just been in the theaters, the first Scream movie. If you are just talking about graphic violence, I pointed out, Scream was at least as bad, maybe even worse. After all, in the opening segment of the film, Drew Barrymore’s character is stalked and killed in her house and her gutted body is hung from a noose in the front yard. “Yeah, but that’s different because it’s Drew Barrymore and we know that was fake.” And so ultimately we had a decent enough discussion about our perceptions of authenticity, particularly interesting because the fictional Man Bites Dog was in the “authentic” genre of a documentary and Scream played heavily off of the “inauthentic” genre of slasher film.

I don’t know if I have a moral to this story exactly, but as I think back on it, I guess I’ve learned two basic things. First, there’s not a lot of harm in giving students a “fair warning” if not exactly a trigger warning about content. I’m not saying we’re obligated to present an alternative text; I’m just saying difficult content shouldn’t be a surprise. In hindsight, maybe I should have been more specific about Man Bites Dog without giving too much away, as in “It’s really really violent and it realistically depicts murders and rapes. Rest assured, this is fictional, but it’s powerful stuff.”

But second, there’s no guarantee with any trigger/prior/fair warning. After all, I did warn my students about Man Bites Dog and it still wasn’t enough to prepare some of them. Besides, we just don’t know what’s going to set people off. I’ve heard that a lot of PTSD suffering veterans can be triggered by things as benign as sudden sounds and crowded rooms, and as one of my colleagues remarked the other day, a rape victim might not be triggered by a violent scene in a movie but the smell of a particular cologne that smells like her rapist.

Still, I think we should still try to give fair warning. Like so many gestures of empathy and common kindness, alerting students to “disturbing content” just seems like a humane thing to do; and, also like so many of these gestures, they still sometimes fail.


3 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings Triggering Memories of Teaching From Long Ago”

  1. There’s a difference between “this might be disturbing” and “in those who have experience certain types of horrific events this might trigger a negative reaction (of the type you have already experienced).”

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