On trigger warnings

Picasso, 'Guernica' (1937). Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.
Picasso, ‘Guernica’ (1937). Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid.

I don’t think we properly understand what follows when someone says ‘That offends or upsets me’. If, in conversation with a friend, we are told that we have caused offence, it is natural that we should apologize and try to avoid the topic in future. In a more general sense, most of us learn – to give just one example of our complex moral education – that passing critical comment on a stranger’s physical appearance is likely to cause offence or upset, and so we avoid doing it. And so it might seem instinctively right for groups of students in some US universities today to call for ‘trigger warnings’ – a tip-off that there may be upsetting topics of discussion coming up – before lectures.

Both the New York Times and the Guardian have in the last few days reported on campuses across the US where such requests are not only being made but supported by the administrative apparatus of the university (as distinct from its academic staff). At Oberlin College in Ohio, for instance, a guide has apparently been issued to staff, instructing them to ‘Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.’ The New York Times suggests that this discourse has its ‘ideological roots in feminist thought’, but we should be more precise than that: it is from the discourse of intersectionality. The list of -isms, the talk of ‘privilege’, and the suggestion that a professor might not be able to understand something that a student might tell them about their personal experience, are all strong indicators of intersectional discourse, which privileges the authentic experience of the individual to such a degree that it preaches a maximally sceptical attitude to the possibility that Person B can understand anything about Person A for the simple reason that they are different people. (I’ve discussed this elsewhere on my blog.) But irrespective of its origins, what are we to make of these calls for ‘trigger warnings’? What are the effects of granting or denying them in university courses?

Freud's sofa
Freud’s couch

Naturally, I’m sympathetic to the idea that we shouldn’t upset people unnecessarily, which is to say wantonly. I don’t want to tap into people’s personal trauma simply in order to make them unhappy. But people are quite happy to upset their friends or one of their patients when some benefit clearly follows. If a friend needs to address a profound problem in a relationship, it often falls to us as friends to articulate something that would be forbidden to most people, and we air the issue because we feel that, if our friend confronts it, it will ultimately help them. Doctors and psychoanalysts, too, address indelicate and upsetting matters in order to find a way through them, to a solution. And this, I suggest, is the model of university education. The world is highly adept at closing its mind to difficult questions, preferring to let the established models run, but university education encourages – in fact requires – critical thinking. Sometimes, as in the pure sciences, the encounter with knowledge is not emotionally challenging; but sometimes, as in the humanities, it can be. The first problem with the ‘trigger warning’ discourse is, then, a misconception of what a university education is about. Irrespective of the discipline, it is about challenging ossified ways of thinking, and opening the mind; and when the kind of knowledge encountered in a discipline touches directly on matters of the human, it is possible – even likely – that that challenge may have an emotional effect on the student. But the same is true when we say to a friend ‘your relationship is over, isn’t it, and you have to come to terms with it’: we know that it will make our friend cry, but that the articulation of that truth will ultimately have been helpful. That future perfect tense, the will have been helpful, is the tense in which education, difficult conversations, surgical operations, psychological treatment, and so on, operate. But instead of thinking of education in this way, I think that people calling for ‘trigger warnings’ are mistaking it for something else. And while I understand why they should do so – our shared ideological investment in the pursuit of enjoyment rather than contemplation makes it difficult to act in any other way – I think that it needs to stop.

The mistake is, I suggest, that education is considered, by the ‘trigger warning’ liberals, to be a form of entertainment, which operates in the present rather than the future perfect tense (it is fun now). We are used to hearing ‘trigger warnings’ before TV shows or in the little notes that film censors helpfully leave for us on DVD cases or the black screen before a film starts in the cinema. And since for most people, most of the time, TV and film are entertainment rather than education, that doesn’t seem entirely inappropriate. If I go to the cinema in order to wind down from a hard day, there are times when I want something that will comfort me, and make me relax in a rather brainless way – so it’s good to know that there won’t be graphic violence on screen (because I don’t like it). Similarly, if an individual has strong views on swearing or sex, it’s reasonable for them to expect that someone will warn them against watching a particular film or show. But we should bear two things in mind. First, art (including forms such as TV and film) is not purely entertainment. In fact I think that entertainment is just an occasional byproduct of art, albeit one that the culture industry – which of course wants to sell us things – has over the last century so exaggerated that even ostensibly intelligent historians of art seem to believe that enjoyment is the main quality of it. And before a liberal tells me to ‘check my privilege’, I should point out that I’m not making an ivory-tower statement here: I think that the normal, profoundly moved general-public response to films such as Schindler’s List suggest that ‘enjoyment’ is rather far from a non-university-educated person’s encounter with art. So that’s the first point: art isn’t principally about entertainment. And the second point is that education isn’t about entertainment at all, any more than surgery or a difficult chat with a friend is. Some people do enjoy it as well, but in a pure, abstract sense: they take pleasure in it on its own terms, simply for being what it is, for its own sake.

An operation in Norway, 1898
An operation in Norway, 1898

If you want to study medicine it’s no good, from a purely pedagogic perspective, to say that you don’t want to watch human bodies being cut open. I certainly wouldn’t want to watch that myself, but that’s why I didn’t study medicine: I know that it would upset me and I avoid it. Now, I could say, along the same lines, that if you want to study humanities it’s no good saying you don’t want to discuss distressing issues. Distressing issues are to the humanities what corpses are to medicine. But I don’t want to directly pursue that line (which, it seems from the newspaper reports, has been one that US professors have, quite understandably, pushed). Though I think there’s an essential validity to it, I’m not in favour of confronting the ‘trigger warning’ liberals and saying, ‘Grow up: don’t be an idiot; grow a spine: a bit of a shock will make you stronger.’

Instead, let’s turn the matter round, and instead of attacking the people calling for ‘trigger warnings’, end by considering the issue I raised at the start of this post: what are the consequences of calling for ‘trigger warnings’? I suggest that ‘trigger warnings’ would be, in fact, a violent influence in the classroom, or in the total discourse of a society. ‘Trigger warnings’ in a university setting would infantilize, for a start, by refusing to treat students as grown-ups. Universities should not be censoring students’ access to knowledge, because it does them a disservice. In this respect, the immaculately intersectional–liberal guidance note at Oberlin College is a spectacularly foolish error. Yes, there are individuals who don’t want to discuss rape, abortion, sodomy, racism, misogyny, violence, suicide, torture, sexual abuse, anti-Semitism, homophobia, clitoridectomy, incest, or paedophilia, let alone the foreign policy of Israel or religious intolerance, and so on. There may even be people who don’t want to look at Picasso’s Guernica because it reminds them of some traumatic experience in a war zone. But there are many others for whom the exposure to rigorous thought on these matters is vital, and in fact the central mission of universities, properly understood. Some issues in the world, including many I’ve just given in my arbitrary selection above, are so difficult to discuss (like the friend’s bad relationship, except scaled up to the size of an entire country, continent, hemisphere) that they are repressed by individuals or banned by a larger national or international community. For many students, the opportunity to discuss these matters in detail is a liberation; for many, a university lecture or seminar can be the first moment in their lives when they gain access to an emancipatory discourse. One person in a class might be upset by a discussion of marital rape, but for the thirty people who have never even thought that it might exist, the discussion makes an appreciable contribution to their formation as individuals. To deny such people that discussion on grounds that it might offend someone is to deny them the hope of freedom. Which is the greater evil here?

Finally, the liberal’s call for a ‘trigger warning’  is not very different from a conservative saying that it’s unseemly or gauche or ill-bred to talk about money troubles or personal anxieties. Both the conservative and the liberal are saying, quite openly, ‘I do not want to listen to what you are saying, even if you are saying it in a measured and sensitive manner, because I simply do not want to hear things that disturb my equanimity. Your suffering is, to me, less important than my comfort.’ Again, if we are talking about film or TV, there may seem to be less of a moral problem here, although if people refused to encounter things like Schindler’s List because they would simply rather not know about it, then I think we do have quite a serious problem: the history of Europe’s slow owning-up to the Holocaust is an important warning of what happens when ‘trigger warnings’ are granted at a societal level. But we’re not talking about film or TV; we’re talking about universities. And to say that we don’t want to discuss clitoridectomy or Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinians because it might upset someone is to do something profoundly illiberal. That ‘I don’t want to listen’ is the statement of someone in a position of relative power who refuses to listen to, and therefore to understand, sympathize with, or help, someone in a weaker position. Indeed, the ‘trigger warning’ call is simply the obverse of the familiar intersectional insistence that Person B can’t understand Person A. If we privilege authenticity of experience, and claim that nobody can understand anybody else’s suffering, it is a very small step to say ‘Since I can’t understand your suffering, I don’t want to listen to it either. I’m very happy, thanks very much, not knowing about your suffering: to hear about it would spoil my day, and since I can never understand you, what’s the point of you telling me anyway?’ As so often, liberals need to see the profound conservatism that lies behind their posturing, and the lack of sympathy that is the basis of their ‘caring’. It is selfishness dressed up as sensitivity, and far from being a nice idea, something that could only do good, it is rather revolting, and could potentially do considerable harm.

So stop calling for ‘trigger warnings’. Don’t say that you don’t want  to know. Don’t say that you can never understand because you lack the authentic personal experience. Listen instead. Be upset, if need be. Being upset can be productive. Then use the knowledge you’ve gained, painfully if necessary, to contribute positively in the world.

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Paul Harper-Scott

Dialectical materialist, feminist, Left musicologist.

2 thoughts on “On trigger warnings”

  1. Perhaps one way for academics to surmount this, if complying with the trigger warnings régime under duress, would be to attach a trigger warning to *every* lecture and seminar for *every* type of trigger, on the grounds that, even if a ‘sensitive subject’ were not planned for the presentation itself, it could become pertinent in the discussion/questions/&c., possibly with no advance warning. If all humanities academics working under such régimes did this, then the utility of trigger warnings as a tool of censorship would be eliminated, yet the warnings would, helpfully, serve as an unequivocal indication to students and attendees that academia is not entertainment.

  2. I always thought the whole trigger warning thing was ridiculous for similar reasons as you stated, but another reason is that I just think they’re useless for many, many people. And the reason is because I think in many cases, seeing one will make someone MORE likely to look at something, even knowing it may upset/shock/offend, etc, them. We as humans have a morbid fascination with things sometimes, which is perfectly normal. So seeing trigger warning just makes it too tempting to look, like when you’re watching a horror movie & can’t look away from something gruesome despite it making you feel sick. Furthermore, there are MANY people that I believe-scratch that, that I know for a fact get off on lecturing people about their insensitivity (i.e. the ‘check your privledge’ slactivist crowd), under the guise of ‘I’m educating people!’ when all they’re doing is having psuedo intellectual pissing contests in order to stroke their gargantuan egos. Anything that may remotely offend someone is like a wet dream for them. So trigger warnings just draw them like a moth to a flame.

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