Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Trigger warnings

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd virtue, unexercis'd & unbreath'd, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.
-- John Milton, Areopagitica

There continues to be discussion as to whether college courses should include “trigger warnings” for potentially upsetting content. No US college or university I know of requires this, one large survey found fewer than 1% of institutions of higher learning do, and the American Association of University Professors opposes them, so the discussion is largely hypothetical at this point, but as there is a vocal minority which argues they should be mandatory, it behooves us to consider whether or not that would be a good idea.

The arguments for trigger warnings are all over the map, but the main threads are:

1. This is a simple courtesy to wounded students; just basic politeness.
2. This is a medically necessary accommodation for students with PTSD and flashbacks.
3. Trigger warnings are necessary because presenting sexism, racism, etc. to students who may have suffered from it, without warning them that said horror is coming, normalizes the horror and thereby constitutes a microaggression against the sufferer which may contribute to silencing them and excluding their experience from the discourse.

The arguments against trigger warnings are also varied and include:

1. It is the responsibility of adult students to deal with their emotional responses to college coursework.
2. Requiring trigger warnings, and thus implicitly extending the promise that you will NOT be exposed to emotionally trying materials without forewarning and consent, damages the university as a location for the free exchange of ideas.
3. Trigger warning infantilize students.

Before I examine trigger warnings, let me define a few terms (It’s important to be precise. We’re not talking about potentially civilization-ending anthropomorphic climate change today; we’re talking about 18-year-olds trying to read Proust and Kant, in other words, something really important.) A text is used here to mean any cultural artifact students might make an object of study, including fiction and nonfiction, pictures and movies, TV scripts or poetry. PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental illness, estimated to effect between four and six million people in the United States, the symptoms of which can include flashbacks, which are technically referred to as re-experiencing symptoms.

In searching for information about trigger warnings I can find no evidence that they work in the sense of aiding those with PTSD, and no evidence of harm when they are incorporated into college coursework. In fact, as far as I can tell, neither question has been studied. Until and unless they are, I am reluctant to form a strong opinion about trigger warnings. When it comes to their effect on students as a whole, I almost despair of ever getting any data to work with, but if you are going to advocate for trigger warnings in the name of PTSD sufferers, the absence of any evidence that they help should trouble you.

Now, today, both potential benefits and potential harms from requiring trigger warnings can only be hypothesized.

Might trigger warnings not help those with PTSD? It might seem self-evident that as it is unpleasant to be “triggered,” a warning is preferable. It may not be so. If trigger warnings encourage avoidance, a common problem for sufferers of PTSD, they might do harm. Telling a sufferer a “trigger” is coming might blunt their reaction but it also might, by suggesting provocative content is coming, strengthen the reaction, “priming the pump” for re-experiencing symptoms.

Trigger warnings inevitably direct attention towards the PTSD-afflicted student. This may be good or bad. Some mental illnesses, such as somatoform disorders, benefit from frequent structured attention to the symptoms. Others, like borderline personality disorder or non-epileptic seizures, seem to get worse when the wrong kind of attention is given. Without data, it’s hard to say whether trigger warnings would help those with PTSD, hurt them, or make no difference at all.

I am talking as if the purpose of trigger warnings is to help students with PTSD and flashbacks (which might describe one out of a hundred college students, if that), but it’s clear that some advocates see a much wider role for trigger warnings than this. Consider the much-maligned and now suspended Oberlin trigger warning guidelines:
In an Oberlin class that contains 20 students, we estimate that there may be about 2 to 3 students in the class who have experienced some form of sexualized violence..  If 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced IPV, there can be at least 5-6 survivors of IPV in the class.  In other words, you may have taught and may continue to teach individuals who have experienced significant trauma. . . .

Oberlin’s community cannot afford to ignore sexualized violence, including intimate partner abuse and stalking.  Faculty can make a serious impact on students’ lives by standing against sexual misconduct and making classrooms safer.
But this concern for sexual abuse survivors is quickly subsumed in a much larger set of issues:
·  Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma.  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.
·  Anything could be a trigger—a smell, song, scene, phrase, place, person, and so on.  Some triggers cannot be anticipated, but many can.
·  Remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.
The initial goal of warning the student so they can prepare themselves quickly evolves, in the Oberlin guidelines, to getting the bad stuff out of the picture entirely. When instructors cannot get rid of it, they are instructed to apologize for it, in such a way as to close off any potential exploration of whether or to what extent a work is racist, classist, elitist, and so on. It is definitionally unclean.
  • ·  Tell students why you have chosen to include this material, even though you know it is triggering.  For example:
    • “…We are reading this work in spite of the author’s racist frameworks because his work was foundational to establishing the field of anthropology, and because I think together we can challenge, deconstruct, and learn from his mistakes.”
    • “…This documentary challenges heterosexism in an important way.  It is vital to discuss this issue.  I think watching and discussing this documentary will help us become better at challenging heterosexism ourselves.”
·  Strongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alterative assignment using different materials.  When possible, help students avoid having to choose between their academic success and their own wellbeing.
These quotes are from a larger policy which was roundly condemned and ultimately abandoned; there are certainly other ways to handle trigger warnings, but I think the Oberlin experience indicates that there is something much, much more complex and problematic going on in the debate over trigger warnings than simply being polite and considerate. There is a strong ideological perspective here which is presenting an agenda item as necessary to protect the mentally ill. 

Not only is the evidence that it will do so nonexistent, it further raises a concern any time people use the sick and vulnerable to define certain kinds of cultural expression as abusive or dangerous. 

This is a thing that always happens when something cannot be condemned in terms of the choices adults make, but which some people strongly dislike anyway, whether it is pornography, or violent video games, or homosexual characters in movies or television. The claim that “You and I are fine, but we must think of vulnerable” always seems to crop up in this context.

One interpretation of this debate, then, and I do not say this is the only one or the correct one,  is that for people wishing for the academy to more clearly and explicitly condemn racism, sexism, ableism, classism, etc. in the Western canon, this is a slightly modified won’t-somebody-please-think-of-the-children argument. Yes, they may posit, you could bring these texts into the classroom and let students and teachers tease them apart and find these aspects themselves, and decide what they think about them, but won’t-somebody-please-think-of-the-traumatized?

There are a number of things about mandatory trigger warnings I would describe as potentially harmful. Again, we haven’t gathered data on this and we don’t know. One, and this may be a minor matter, it makes more work for the instructors, who have to add the warnings to the syllabus. As a member of a profession (medicine) where we are being crushed by a mindset of "just one more" documentation requirement, this is near to my heart.

More seriously, introducing students to a text with a series of labels describing the ways in which it is potentially traumatizing encourages them to anchor upon the ways it which it is offensive even as they are first entering the author’s world and beginning to understand the author’s concerns and perspective. 

Labeling a text as traumatically racist, sexist, classist or even as containing violence or rape encourages people to approach a text via a prism of our modern values and concerns, prepared to be hurt and offended by what has been labelled hurtful and offensive.

The open-ended nature of what constitutes a trigger and which triggers are going to be labelled concerns me. Labeling rape and graphic violence, though it may be a good or a bad idea, is at least fairly limited. Extending trigger warnings to racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, elitism and so on seems like an open invitation to a giant clusterfuck of disagreement not only about what type of thing is a trigger but of what kind of reference to it (direct or indirect, graphic or abstract) constitutes a trigger. Does a battle in a history book require a trigger? What about a massacre? Or a description of a slave auction? A list of slave auctions? A map of the transatlantic slave trade?

Activists of one kind or another will press to have examples of things offensive to them labelled as triggers. Jewish students will describe Palestinian nationalism as triggering. Palestinians will describe Zionism as triggering. Arabs will be triggered by Orientalism and trans students by cissexism. No one will want to be left out, since that would imply that their pain from the oppression they have suffered is less significant than other folks'.

What concerns me about this is not so much that we will end up with the wrong triggers, or too many triggers, as that the process itself is likely to be vicious, viriputive, and most of all endless.

What’s more, if in fact the experience of the student determines what is traumatizing and we are to “believe the student” as the Oberlin guidelines mandate, can we imagine a day Christian students describe homosexual sex in a novel as triggering? At most of our colleges and universities such a claim would be howled down in outrage, but this just underscores the fact that formulating a list of legitimately traumatizing subjects is an inherently political act. Black students will be warned about discussions of the slave trade: Southern students will not get warnings before discussing Sherman’s March. Which may be very fine and good, but it indicates the presence of unspoken assumptions and premises in the implementation of “trigger warnings” that have no place in the explicit theory.

It’s concerning to me that some activists are asserting a position of radical vulnerability, in which triggering things as said to paralyze them with horror. That does not seem like a stance that is sustainable or emotionally or spiritually healthy. While this may begin as a pose or a way of advocating for others, as soon as activists “win” by showing evidence of being triggered, more of them will start to experience those symptoms. We all respond to positive reinforcement. If we encourage student activists to wear a mask of extreme vulnerability, to some extent that mask will become reality for some of them, which is not desirable.

The best case I think can be made for “strong” trigger warnings covering racism, classism, albeism, transexism, etc., is that our society, like many ostensibly free societies, sustains and reinforces privilege by quasi-objective measures of capability or application that don’t take into account the different place marginalized people are coming from.

Take a hypothetical case of a university with ten swimming scholarships for the ten fastest swimmers in Pittsburgh. The standards of the scholarship are objective – but when you look into it you may find 30 public swimming pools in predominantly white neighborhoods, and 2 in black neighborhoods. Our “objective” scholarship doesn't take into account that difference in infrastructure between the two communities in Pittsburgh.

Proponents of strong trigger warnings argue something similar occurs with the traditional back-and-forth of the academy. The ability to assert one’s beliefs, argue for one’s perspective, and recognize and vigorously refute slights directed at you, your community (or one of your communities,) is not distributed equally. One of the ways in which it is unequally distributed is that a larger proportion of marginalized people have experienced the kind of trauma that could cause them to be “triggered.”

An environment of traditional academic freedom to set one’s own readings, say or entertain discussions they touch upon painful and difficult topics, and trust that “the answer to free speech is more free speech” is, in this account, fine and good for those who have benefited from white privilege, they having been taught from a young age that their opinions matter, that they can express them without fear, and without their having to carry the burden of trauma that may be re-provoked by careless treatment of painful subjects.

Safe spaces and microaggressions, trigger warnings and affirmative action: all are premised in this basic (and I think in some measure correct) argument that we didn’t all get here from the same place, we are not all in fact here in the same here exactly, some of us got here hurt and damaged from wrestling with injustice, and a “fairness” that asks everyone to line up for a footrace when some have been kneecaped is not very fair at all, really. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Accepting that there is something here, something that is not just self-pity, or a cunning attempt to dictate the terms of the classroom discussion by professions of weakness, it is still not clear to be that pre-labeling texts as racist or sexist or classiest is actually helpful. 

There is already in the modern American academy a strong tendency to interpret all texts through the prism of injustice and oppression. And that is an important frame, and I don’t wish to slight it, but a good text is so much, much, much more than that, that I am fearful that mandating labels before the student has taken that very first step toward interpretation risks making the true power and wonder of the text, of the author’s creation, harder to access, harder to know.

It is the responsibility of students and instructors to ultimately pick apart texts: to analyze, criticize, and place in context the authors ideas, subjects, words and context. One issue, alluded to above, is that trigger warnings take that work out of the students’ hands and present the answer to them in the syllabus: this work is racist, classiest, and sexist. It comes pre-judged.

Another issue, though, is that analysis and criticism should follow some sincere effort to inhabit the text and to understand the author’s world and concerns. A text should be approached, in other words, as if it might teach you something. It may be uncomfortable to approach a text in that way: exposing ourselves to different ways of thinking usually is. But we may do no good service to marginalized students by impeding this act of empathy: Fewer may be surprised by a textual “microaggression,” but by always beginning with their grievance placed between themselves and the text, will fewer grab hold of the texts and take ownership of them, fulling participating in the texts that constitute their cultural capital too? Will fewer be able to say, with Richard Rodriguez "I have taken Caliban's advice. I have stolen their books"?

I tend to think that we should strengthen marginalized students in other ways than this. The study of gender, race, ethnicity and so on in relation to the Western canon has exploded over the last 30 years; those pioneers were not silenced by the naked texts, and I would not expect their heirs to be paralyzed either. Leave warnings regarding disturbing content to the discretion of the instructors; support those with PTSD with better mental health services and case-by-case accommodations; increase minority attendance, and minority presence in the faculty and the administration, which will do more to un-silence marginalized communities in the academy than any doctrine of labeling. Absence evidence of benefit, don't impose scarlet letters of thoughtcrime on texts; this will impede good reading, which alone makes the text a part of the student and their story -- an act which is not only vital to education but is, especially for the young, especially the marginalized, a source of power, part of the flowering of them and their strength.