Taken Too Far: When Trigger Warnings Attack!
I guess this is Jim Talks About Triggers and Content Warnings and Censorship and Stuff Week. Here are the previous two blog posts:
- Trigger Warnings as CENSORSHIP, and Other Nonsense
- Trigger Warnings as an Impediment to Mental Health
I want to talk next about the fear that trigger warnings could be abused, or that they could be used as a tactic to silence others and infringe on free speech.
As a general rule, almost anything can be taken to extremes and misused. Hypothetically, I could proclaim the color green was triggering me, and demand Michigan State University change their colors. At which point MSU would presumably, and rightfully, ignore me.
A fair number of the concerns I’ve seen raised were, like that example, hypothetical. “But what if…?”
It’s good to consider unintended consequences. We should also consider how likely those consequences are. How widespread. Have we seen incidents to suggest the potential harm outweighs the potential benefit? Are we more worried about hypothetical pain than actual pain?
Are those concerns worth thinking about? Sure. Are they justification to immediately cease and desist all Trigger Warnings and label anyone who protests an oversensitive whiner? Not so much.
Moving on from the hypothetical, what about all those real-world examples of people using “triggers” to attack others, and to shut down free speech?
Sexually Graphic Questions Appear in Cambridge Law Exam: One commenter pointed to this article, saying “Cambridge law students objected to an exam question on various forms of rape and sexual offenses.” But the article says only that students were shocked — not that they objected.
Sebastian Salek, a third-year from Clare College … told the Independent that questions on sexual offences are ‘always going to be quite graphic’, but that ‘this was on another level from previous years’.
He insisted that questions like this are ‘necessary’, however. “The criminal law isn’t pretty and law students have to be able to deal with the offences that were raised.”
The article says nothing about removing those questions. It doesn’t reference censorship, or students calling for changes to the exam. It simply notes that the questions were apparently more graphic than in prior years.
The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law: This article is by Jeannie Suk, and was referenced in that Atlantic piece about the “coddling” of American minds. The Atlantic article argued, “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” But what does Suk’s piece actually say?
Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering. Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.
You’ve got several things going on here. One is the request that professors let students know when they’re going to be discussing rape law, particularly when — like Suk — they’re going to be assigning students to argue hypothetical cases, to prosecute or defend accused rapists in “ambiguous” situations. I tend to agree that a content warning would be a Good Thing.
Should students be able to skip classes that deal with specific, potentially traumatic topics? Well, skipping class isn’t generally good for your education. On the other hand, neither is breaking down in class or afterward. Skipping the occasional class didn’t interfere with me getting my degree or making the honors lists. (Sorry, mom and dad!) This feels like an area where each student should make whatever choice is best for them. Isn’t that what we want students to be learning? To be independent and make their own informed choices? And keep in mind, trigger warnings don’t automatically mean students will skip that class. Often, it just gives students a warning so they can mentally and emotionally prepare themselves.
As for individual students allegedly asking teachers to remove questions about rape law from an exam, or to avoid using the word “violate” in class?
The key word here is asking. If professors are being forced to remove those questions, I think that’s a problem, yes. The legal system in this country is messed up enough already when it comes to rape; the last thing we need is to graduate a crop of students who are even more ignorant about how those laws work. But Suk doesn’t say she’s actually changed her curriculum, or been forced to do so.
She does say, “About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students.”
Yeah, that’s a problem. But is it a realistic fear? Is the problem students and others pressuring the professors, or is the problem professors giving in to baseless fears? We all know students will complain about stuff. But are universities actually disciplining or censoring professors for teaching rape law in law school? Suk’s article talks about fear, but is noticeably lacking in examples.
My Trigger-warning Disaster: This is another article linked to by a commenter as an example of trigger warnings being taken to ridiculous extremes. Rani Neutill writes about teaching a class about the evolution of sex in movies, and also filling in at the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services.
Before I screened [Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song], I gave a warning, indicating that it was one of the disturbing scenes to which Williams refers. The scene shows a young Sweetback … having sex with a 30-year old woman. She finds him irresistible and thus starts the hyper-sexual evolution of Sweetback — every woman on earth wants to fuck him, including a whole bunch of white women. This, of course, is statutory rape. When the lights went on and the scene was over, two students left the room in tears. I was perplexed.
Wait, she was perplexed? She’s working in the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services, and she doesn’t understand how a scene of statutory rape might upset two of her students? The problem, in my reading, is that Neutill made the mistaken assumption that a trigger warning was a silver bullet, a cure-all that would ensure nobody got angry or upset or overwhelmed.
For the rest of the semester, I gave trigger warnings before every scene I screened. Every. Single. One. This wasn’t enough. A student came to me and asked that I start sending emails before class outlining exactly which disturbing scenes I would be showing so that I wouldn’t “out” survivors if they had to walk out of class when hearing what I was about to show. This took all the free form and off the cuff ability to teach. It stifled the teaching process … Nevertheless, I did it. (Emphasis added)
Why did she do it? Reading the article, it wasn’t because she feared complaints or disciplinary action. It was because students were upset, and she kept trying to “fix” that. Which isn’t how it works.
Also, most teachers I’ve known have to plan their lessons, and showing film clips seems like something you’d have to set up in advance, so I’m not sure how letting students know in advance what they’d be looking at would stifle her freedom and process.
One final excerpt from her piece:
I don’t know about trigger warnings outside classes that deal with race, gender and sexuality, but I do know that if you promote trigger warnings in subjects that are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, you’re basically promoting a culture of extreme privilege, cause I’m pretty sure that the trans women who are being murdered weekly, the black men who are victims of police brutality daily, and the neighborhoods in America that are plagued by everyday violence, aren’t given any trigger warnings.
Shall we play a game of “Find the Messed-up Logical Fallacies in This Paragraph”?
My takeaway on this article isn’t that we’re promoting a culture of extreme privilege and runaway coddling of American minds. It’s that this professor did not know how to handle her class, and made mistakes as a teacher.
Northwestern’s Kipnis Cleared in Title IX Investigation: This is another article referenced (indirectly) by the Atlantic piece. Two Title IX complaints were filed against Laura Kipnis following an article she wrote about “sexual paranoia,” and a Tweet she posted. Of the examples I’ve discussed here, this is the first one with larger external consequences. Kipnis voiced opinions some people didn’t like, and two official complaints were made against her.
Kipnis’ article is available to subscribers only, but the opening sentence is…troubling:
You have to feel a little sorry these days for professors married to their former students. They used to be respectable citizens — leaders in their fields, department chairs, maybe even a dean or two — and now they’re abusers of power…
It sounds like Kipnis was attacking rules that prohibited romantic relationships between faculty and students, complaining that students are, “so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life…”
The Tweet in question said, “It’s a problem that ‘trauma’ is now deployed re any bad experience. And dating is not the same as rape!”
The problem? Kipnis was allegedly responding to a specific case on campus, an accusation of rape by a student against a professor. She denies this, but whether intentional or not, that was the context in which she was speaking out in support of those poor professors who only wanted to
rape have sex with a student or two.
Does this justify a Title IX complaint? I honestly don’t know enough about Title IX law to say. I will note that Kipnis was cleared. I don’t want to minimize the anxiety and hassle of having to deal with those complaints, but she was not punished, nor was she censored by the university.
I’m sure there are examples of trigger warnings being abused and misused. But most of the examples being brought up, if you look into them, don’t suggest a widespread attack on free speech. The fear and the backlash against trigger/content warnings, etc., comes off as completely disproportionate to any real-world problems.
I’m not saying we ignore those real-world problems, or claiming no such problems exist. I’m just suggesting that many of the things being pointed to as “proof” we’re over-coddling minds and destroying academic freedom in the process don’t actually prove that at all.
April 14, 2016 @ 5:28 pm
I think a couple people in your comments, myself included, are coming out of the fanfiction space, which has had variations of this system in place since before it hit the Internet, and certainly since I’ve been in fandom (15 years, now give or take), and have seen it go well and not well to varying degrees, up to and including using or not using warnings as an excuse to content police and bully, in ways that have gotten very ugly. There seems to be a pan-fandom debate on the topic pretty regularly. It currently seems to have settled out to people putting warnings/content notes on things as best the can, or issuing a general caveat lector, and people can read or not. Which is key, I think. This is fandom. There are plenty of fish in the sea.
However, that’s the semi-anarchic space known as fandom, not academia or even pro-publishing, which have people making choices for others, sometimes with serious consequences for mental health. I’m much more interested in some kind of workable structure there.
And boy would I love like like stickers or something for pro-fiction. Just as a heads up or something. As it stands, I often check reviews for information, or ask other people, and try to include content notes in my reviews, but it can get tiresome.
April 14, 2016 @ 6:37 pm
A lot of the “trigger warnings gone wrong” stories out of academia read like self-fulfilling prophecies: profs/admins get scared of what hypothetically might maybe happen and react in accordance with these unsubstantiated fears, thus providing their own substantiation. Those criminal law profs who yanked rape law from their courses due to “risk of complaints” seem like an example of that. what exactly are they basing their fear on? what exactly has been the negative consequence to any profs who have received such complaints? how common are these complains?
April 14, 2016 @ 11:34 pm
I’m not a fan of trigger warnings as far as books go. I’d rather see vauger content warnings. It’s always surprised me that a 10 year old can go buy erotica that is far more graphic than a rated R film. A rating system avoids spoilers. Basic stuff like Graphic content, or Sexual content.
In regards to classes, it should be obvious when a course will have material that might trigger someone. In theory it should be on the sylabus. You know, Unit two part three, Rape Law.
It’s a complicated subject. But I kind of think it should be a students job to do that digging rather than placing the burden on already overworked teachers. If its worrying ask the teacher. If someone can’t handle getting triggered in class, working in whatever field they’re getting triggered by might be a bad idea. So, warning someone might be good. Avoiding the material, forgiving skipping over it, or not including it on exams, not so much.
As far as the teachers cutting it for fear of complaints. That’s still a problem. It means that the culture at their university is not protecting them. I’m not sure where that problem lies but I do know that there are college kids who will abuse anything they can to get a better grade. I wish I had a solution to the problem.
April 15, 2016 @ 1:35 am
“In regards to classes, it should be obvious when a course will have material that might trigger someone”
it is obvious. but the implication of your words is that a person who might then be triggered should avoid that class (because it would be exhaustiing and ineffective to try to steel yourself for the worst every day over an extended period of time). how is that better than being told which specific lecture will include what specific potentially triggering topics, so that they are able to take the class and participate in (most of) it?
“But I kind of think it should be a students job to do that digging”
how is that supposed to work? you don’t know a trigger is in a thing unless you hit upon that thing, and then it’s too late. and if you already know a work… what do you need a class for it?
“If its worrying ask the teacher.”
yes, because asking students to disclose their rape to their teachers is oh so reasonable.
” working in whatever field they’re getting triggered by might be a bad idea”
people aren’t triggered by an entire field. are you saying rape victims shouldn’t be any kind of lawyer?
“So, warning someone might be good.”
that’d be a trigger warning.
“Avoiding the material, forgiving skipping over it, or not including it on exams, not so much.”
that’d be things that are not trigger warnings.
April 15, 2016 @ 1:36 am
I am entirely sympathetic with victims and survivors here, and yet I know that such systems often do turn into censorship. So let’s take care.
April 15, 2016 @ 2:51 am
Such vague warnings are not really very useful. There are some things that fall under “Graphic Content” that I can handle just fine, and others I cannot. A “Violent Content” warning would definitely be too vague.There are certain kinds of violence I can read or watch and I am okay, where as others, like violence against animals, children or other specific victims can be major triggers. Same with “Sexual Content”. I can deal with sex between consenting adults, but rape, adult with child sex and violent sex are all triggers.
I do, however, understand how the more specific trigger warnings could be seen as spoilers for some people. That is why I would be okay with there being a website or websites that I would be able to get the more specific, detailed trigger warnings from. I can take the responsibility of seeking out those warnings. That way, no one needs to have their enjoyment spoiled. You can avoid the spoilers, and I can avoid the triggers.
April 15, 2016 @ 3:44 am
Aminar: you say it should be obvious when a course will have material that might trigger someone. Why? Sure, a course on rape law might be expected to involve discussion, possibly graphic, about rape. (And rape law must absolutely be taught. Rape trials shouldn’t be taken up without the lawyer having education in that area of law.)
But there are other courses where triggers will not be so obvious. A film course, for example, where a variety of films might be shown. Some might have content that could trigger a panic attack or flashbacks in students. Some warning ahead of a film would be good.
Yes, it would be nice if a student could take some responsibility for avoiding or preparing for triggering material. But they have to know there’s material to be avoided or prepared for.
April 15, 2016 @ 4:35 am
I’m all for giving heads up about the content, and honestly I think most teachers do this. In fact, course content or requirements that might be troublesome to some is mentioned in the course catalog. I certainly think it’s a courtesy to warn people if a particularly intense topic like rape or child abuse is going to come up, though it’s pretty obvious that these things would be a part of a criminal psychology, child development or criminal law course.
I think the fear and and runaway hypothetical situations being posed by some faculty at colleges might stem from more generalized worries about the loss of academic freedom that’s been creeping onto campuses in a top-down kind of way.
For instance, at my own campus, there have been changes in the faculty handbook in recent years that remove a lot of discretion instructors used to have re how to teach and administer their courses and re the content itself (there’s a move a move to treating college courses like high school ones with more tightly standardized learning outcomes and curriculum).
I think some instructors are genuinely scared that administrators (who seem to be increasingly motivated by a fear of lawsuits from disgruntled students–we can’t even fail students in classes for documented incidents of cheating anymore–and of politicians who want us to get students through college faster) may make these warnings mandatory. It’s possible that it could lead administrators, who themselves grow weary of fielding complaints, to discourage some kinds of content completely.
And with so many faculty now part-timers/adjuncts who are unprotected by tenure, a student complaint can result in dismissal, or at least a serious strike against one’s record.
I don’t think refusal to provide warnings is the answer at all, but I do see where some of the anxiety comes from, as it’s very human to want more once something becomes an accepted norm. There’s not a lot of trust between the administration and the faculty on the campuses I’ve taught at in recent years. This, more than a lack of concern for the students, may be what’s driving some of the resistance.
April 15, 2016 @ 4:59 am
For me, one of the major problems with what Stephen Fry said, apart from its being inherently repulsive, is that every single element of it, including trigger warnings, University safe space policies and, most telling of all to my mind, his reference to the recent “Rhodes must fall” is that you could have footnoted every single one of them to an Op Ed piece in the British right-wing press, mainly to the Daily Telegraph.
Therefore, I think this is a culture war issue and not simply an academic freedom/protection of students issue.
But it’s not a straight left/right culture war, because one of the other things that gets thrown into the mix is on the one hand concerns about Islamophobia/racism dressed up as militant atheism (which is another thing Fry has waded into, and not with good results) and on the other side concerns about radical Islam on campuses and misuse of safe space rhetoric to facilitate these. (Googling Goldsmiths College and Maryam Namazie throws up a recent incident which everyone and their dog has interpreted to suit their own side in this particular muddle.)
There’s also a very different free speech environment in the UK, which in practice means that certain forms of speech can, in fact, be shut down altogether, especially by someone as rich as Stephen Fry. How that works in the days of the internet and social media is playing out at the moment with respect to a celebrity superinjunction breached extra-territorially by a right-wing blogger.
So I think one of the issues that I find troubling myself is not the issue of trigger warnings per se (though my experiences with fandom and warnings parallels Muccamukk’s) but how debates around them are being fought as a sort of proxy war. Which is probably beyond the scope of this discussion but which is, to me, very relevant to the issue of “unintended consequences.”
April 15, 2016 @ 5:05 am
I think that’s really helpful and useful to me as background, because it’s something I’ve been sensing lying behind this too. Particularly the point about lack of tenure and the importance of student grades (isn’t there research somewhere which shows that female academics consistently score less well in student assessments?)
Jim C. Hines
April 15, 2016 @ 10:57 am
A number of people have made that claim. Is there evidence or documentation to back up that this happens often?
Jim C. Hines
April 15, 2016 @ 11:05 am
This makes sense to me. As I understand it, the university environment in the U.S. has *not* been a friendly one toward professors. I know when I was teaching at EMU, we had more restrictions and less discretion in teaching than I was comfortable with. There’s probably a whole other blog post on that.
I think the lack of trust between admin and faculty, and the fear that faculty won’t be supported, is a huge problem, yeah. It doesn’t seem like the problem is about trigger warnings or coddling students so much as it’s about stripping faculty of their power and support, if that makes sense?
Jim C. Hines
April 15, 2016 @ 11:06 am
I think you’re right about the culture-war-by-proxy effect. Which makes the whole conversation that much messier…
Jim C. Hines
April 15, 2016 @ 11:15 am
Agreed. I haven’t written much about the fanfiction context, partly because I don’t know enough and haven’t had a chance to do more digging and research. Maybe that will be Part 4 of this series, depending on how ambitious I’m feeling…
April 15, 2016 @ 11:27 am
As a college professor concerned about this topic, I try to read as many of those articles and examples as I can. If you pay attention to them, every single instance is either “I heard someone who knew someone…” second or third hand examples, or “I totally caved because of imagined pressure that wasn’t really there but now I can publicly complain about that imagined pressure.”
Ug, and don’t get me started on Kipnis. I have had friends who are against trigger warnings bring her up and she really is a terrible example. I was following the sexual assault case prior to her essay since it was concerning two philosophy graduate students and a philosophy professor, and that’s my field, and it has been dealing with several sexual harassment and assault problems lately.
The situation was that a professor (Peter Ludlow) was currently under investigation for sexually assaulting a student. Then Kipnis (who is from the same university) writes a “totally unrelated essay” that just happens to say how terrible this is and academics are being ruined by students like this, and on and on – basically using her position and prominence to publicly eviscerate a student sexual assault victim while the investigation was taking place. It’s tangential to bring it up as a Title IX charge, but it’s at least one of the ugliest abuses of power I have recently seen in academics.
Ludlow, had rape charges brought up by a second student, and eventually was found guilty by the university of sexual harassment and resigned in the middle of being terminated. From the information that was coming out, he seemed to be a sexual predator victimizing students and dancing all along the line of consent especially in regards to drunk students as well as abuse of his authority. So saying that Kipnis is worried about “trigger warning culture” is pretty ridiculous and only brought up as an example by people who didn’t take a look at what the situation actually was. So it’s an even worse example of the problem, and it’s fine to dismiss it as completely unrelated and not a fair example of the alleged problem of trigger warnings.
April 15, 2016 @ 12:12 pm
Yes, very much. Which is why it can’t easily be boiled down to “Anyone who disagrees with me must be stupid or deliberately malicious.”
April 15, 2016 @ 4:58 pm
Thanks for these posts. A much needed dose of clear- and level-headedness in a very out of control debate.
April 15, 2016 @ 6:12 pm
There’s a summary over at FanLore.org, but last I saw it was neither current nor comprehensive. Maybe one of the meta comms?
April 15, 2016 @ 7:31 pm
Very much like the fuss about sexual harassment policies, and IMO for very similar reasons. When you actually look for citations, you’re lucky to find one genuine instance of a “false sexual harassment claim” amid a sea of urban legends, FOAF stories, and in general people screaming from the rooftops that they’re afraid to speak above a whisper. Add in the perpetuation-of-bullying culture exemplified by “I had to do it and it didn’t bother ME, so why should anyone else get off easy?”, and it doesn’t make a pretty picture.
April 15, 2016 @ 7:35 pm
How? When and where has this happened? Do you actually have relevant content to contribute to the conversation, or is this merely a vague “viewing with alarm” which can and should be ignored?
April 15, 2016 @ 8:46 pm
I’d agree with this, yes. Not to say that some faculty can’t be entitled prigs, of course, or so attached to the way they’ve always done things that they’re never insensitive. It’s interesting to see the backlash against trigger warnings (a pretty liberal concept) in academia, though, since it’s an environment that’s often regarded–by both detractors and supporters of liberalism–as being the last bastion of liberalism in our society. But this is just an idea I’ve been kicking around lately, so maybe I’m wrong about where it’s coming from.
Jim C. Hines
April 17, 2016 @ 11:32 am
Thanks for the additional context and info on that, Ken.
April 18, 2016 @ 12:44 am
Seems to me that protecting children was the main justification for suppressing any specific information about sexuality, not so? And all information about frowned on sexual practices like homosexuality, BDSM, and so on.
I’m not an expert on this; someone else is going to have to do the heavy lifting here. (Avedon Carol might have a few more specifics.) Trigger warnings may be different. But “protecting people” is one of the biggest excuses for controlling people and I think we’d best be various cautious. In two generations we have swung from prudery to prurience, stopping at no moderate point between, and I fear this is part of a swing back.
April 18, 2016 @ 2:31 am
Raven Onthill, trigger warnings are not about controlling people or content. The current movie rating system is meant to aid parents in choosing which movies they will allow their children to see. Trigger warnings are meant to help people make more informed choices about what they read and view. That is, to give them more control, not to control what is available.
April 18, 2016 @ 9:13 am
Not in the UK it isn’t; the British Board of Film Classification used to be the British Board of Film Censorship and it still has statutory powers. A film may not be shown to the public before it has been allocated a certificate. Where it assigns a 15 or an 18 certificate cinemas are required to prevent people under those ages attending. A local authority may ban showing of a film in its locality notwithstanding it has been given a certificate by the BBFC; Aberystwyth only repealed its ban on Life of Brian in 2009. The current government keep flailing about threatening to introduce some similar procedure for websites and have already forced ISPs to have Network Level Filtering set up and to require users to actively opt out of it; LGBT content was one of the automatically switched off unless opted in filtering categories when BT offered its first Parental Software Controls in 2013.
It’s a battle campaigners for online freedom and access have to be constantly aware of, what the ISPs are being forced by the Department for Culture Media and Sport to sign up to, so it’s not a case of “no-one talking about censorship” – we’ve already got censorship, the question is how trigger warnings fit into the wider censorship map.
April 18, 2016 @ 10:47 am
That’s what they are now. Will they stay that way? History is not reassuring on this point. Making trigger warnings academic policy may be a step down that road, that’s the reason for my concern.