by Doctor Science
The NY Times reports that students at a number of colleges are starting to request "trigger warnings" for classroom material. The story has been picked up all over the place, and articles and posts about it either say trigger warnings are censorship (and therefore bad), or the comments do.
This is bollocks. Trigger warnings aren't censorship, they're the opposite.
I can state this with some authority because I've actually seen trigger warnings used, in a variety of online settings, over a long period of time. Unlike the vast majority of recent commenters, I actually know what I'm talking about.
Regular readers here will have noticed that I use trigger warnings when I'm discussing rape and/or abuse. It's so usual and customary in fanfic-dominated parts of the Internet that I hadn't really noticed I was doing something that needed explanation, but now that the custom seems to be breaking out into the wider public I'll explain why I use warnings and how college courses could benefit from them.
Fanfic writers and readers have been arguing about story warnings for a long time; other communities should take advantage of our hard-earned experience. In fact, I wonder if the students who are speaking up about this learned about such warnings in fandom, on Tumblr, or elsewhere on the Internet.
I'm cutting here as a trigger warning, because talking about the warnings means talking about the topics: rape, assault, PTSD, and vile and demeaning language.
I believe the concept of trigger warnings came into fandom from online feminist communities. The specific problem the feminist internet had was needing to be able to discuss rape, in a space where there were many rape survivors with varying levels of trauma. Trigger warnings are a way to give people with PTSD a heads-up, so they could avoid or be mentally prepared for material that might be a horrible reminder.
I am not using the term "PTSD" metaphorically, here. The National Women's Study found that: Almost one-third (31%) of all rape victims developed PTSD sometime during their lifetime; and more than one in ten rape victims (11%) still has PTSD today. Overall, about twice as many women suffer PTSD as men, and the ratio is more like 3:1 for young adults such as college students. Sexual assault is epidemically common, and the rate of PTSD among victims is extremely high.
In our society in general, the chance that someone with rape PTSD will be "triggered" is very high, because rape is not actually taken seriously. Comedians make jokes about it, movies and TV shows include it to be "edgy" or "dark" or less sexy, books play with it, gamers use it as an all-purpose insult.
Most rapes are never reported because victims know that they won't be taken seriously, even if they're believed. And our culture in general is a minefield of reminders to rape victims that they're unimportant, liars, laughable, not in control and not worthy of being in control.
Trigger warnings are a way of making a space that is safer for survivors, a place where they are in control of what they get exposed to. Trigger warnings are the opposite of censorship, because they give people who want to talk about difficult topics the freedom to do so without restraint -- as long as they warn off people who might be hurt.
Personally, I don't use trigger warnings to be "politically correct", as a self-admiring display of my sensitivity or whatever that fartface Dan Savage thinks. I use them because of specific people who I know are following my posts and who have varying degrees of rape PTSD. I am doing it to protect my friends, because I respect their feelings and I don't want to hurt them. I could try to "just be more sensitive" in my writing, but that would be me making judgments about what they can or can't deal with. I put up the trigger warning to give *them* control over what they're exposed to, so they can judge for themselves.
And this may be why many people perceive the warnings as "censorship": because it is a way of ceding some control, from the writer or teacher to the reader or student. If you're used to having (or thinking you have and ought to have) dominating control, then yeah, letting other people have a chance will indeed seem like a horrible infringement.
But you'd be wrong. Allowing the audience/reader/student to control their own experience is nothing like censorship -- censorship would restrict what you, the writer/teacher, can do.
Trigger warnings let me be *more* free about what I write, because I don't have to worry that my forthrightness will hurt people I care about, and who already have more than enough hurt to deal with. As far as I'm concerned, people who say "trigger warnings are unnecessary and restrictive" are actually saying, "hurting people with PTSD is just the price we pay for learning."
My extensive experience with trigger warnings on fiction is that the custom emphatically does *not* have a chilling or censoring effect on the production of (written) porn or violence. What it *does* tend to do is make writers more aware of how they're writing sex and violence, and make them think about whether they're doing a good job, about how they're treating human experience.
For college courses, trigger warnings are an opportunity to present material in a complex way, that recognizes that the classroom is part of the world. They force the teacher -- and the students -- to confront the fact that different readers (or viewers) come with different experiences of reality, and will always have different reactions to the same text.
Here's an example: Warner Brothers now releases classic Looney Toons shorts with the following, well, trigger warning:
The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in the U.S society. These depictions were wrong then and they are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today's society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming that these prejudices never existed.
This is exactly the sort of thing that college courses try to do: teach about complexity, ambiguity, and the importance of context.
The Looney Toons warning also reminds me of an important point that's being generally ignored in the mess. From the Times article:
Bailey Loverin, a sophomore at Santa Barbara, said the idea for campuswide trigger warnings came to her in February after a professor showed a graphic film depicting rape. She said that she herself had been a victim of sexual abuse, and that although she had not felt threatened by the film, she had approached the professor to suggest that students should have been warned.I saw a post about a very similar incident last year, where a student in a film course talked about how shocking she found it when rape scenes to be just thrown up on screen as though they're no different from any other scene. "You warn for that shit!" was her gut reaction, honed by what fandom considered normal practice.
The point is that video needs more of a warning than text, especially video that's watched in the classroom -- where the student/viewer can't control the playback and where everyone can see if you start to lose it. Not to mention that film has a much broader bandwidth than text, it packs much more of an emotional punch.
Film teachers should look at trigger warnings as a golden opportunity: to talk about what kinds of material are considered "appropriate" for what audiences, about variations in audience reactions, about how people get used (or not) to different kinds of emotionally-difficult films -- and about how triggery material can be used as a barrier, to repel the "wrong sort" of viewers or film-makers.
To those who say that literature, and film, and teaching itself, are supposed to be "provocative", to shake people out of their easy complacency:
Yes, sometimes teaching *does* involve giving students a metaphoric kick in the shins. But (as Sprog the Elder pointed out to me) shin-kickers need to realize that some people already have broken legs, and there are enough invisible broken legs around that you can be sure there are some in your class. Not giving students a *choice* about being kicked means that some people will be badly hurt, as the price for the others getting a salutary lesson. Is that really what you want?