Thursday, June 05, 2014

Trigger Warnings

So, I didn't know about trigger warnings until I read this article by Rebecca Mead in the recent issue of The New Yorker. According to Mead, an article in the NY Times described trigger warnings as

...preëmptive alerts, issued by a professor or an institution at the request of students, indicating that material presented in class might be sufficiently graphic to spark symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder.
I was torn, as I read the article, which does delve into the recent shooting at UC-Santa Barbara. Everyone knows, given the numbers of attacks on college and university campuses that have made the news over the past ten years that classrooms can no longer be considered safe spaces. In fact, nowhere in America, it seems, is anyone safe these days. People might be tempted to say, "Well, you're safe at home", but, no, homes are often the most dangerous places for those who share their homes with violent people, especially violent people who have guns. Also, as a woman who has a rather vivid imagination and has probably read a few too many mysteries and thrillers, as well as watched a few too many episodes of things like Criminal Minds, I can tell you that I often don't feel safe in my own home, especially when I'm alone at night.

I started the article, thinking "well, maybe trigger warnings are a good idea." I mean, I have friends who've been sexually abused or sexually assaulted to whom I've said, "Don't read Stieg Larsson." The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a book I very nearly put down and never picked back up, so upsetting was that first brutal rape scene, although I ended up loving the book by the end. Interestingly, though, I have a friend who was sexually abused by her father who devoured all three of the books and didn't seem nearly as traumatized by all the sexual abuse as I was. Which just goes to show, you really can't tell what is and isn't going to be a ptsd trigger.

Realizing how arbitrary and unpredictable ptsd triggers are, I blinked and went from thinking maybe trigger warnings are a good idea to thinking, "How much more are we going to baby students?" If the reality of their lives is that some NRA-supported psycho with an AK-47 could burst into their classroom at any minute, or that they could get stabbed while walking from their dorms to their classes, or that they might have a roommate they think they know who is secretly plotting to bomb a marathon, isn't literature the best place to explore sudden, unexpected violence? Do we really need to shield them from fiction? By definition, literature is a safe place, because we all know that what's happening either isn't real or that it happened somewhere else to someone else. It doesn't need to be made safer for those who are 18 and over. The horrible things that happen to us in life rarely ever come with warnings. When an adult picks up a book or goes to a movie, he or she should know without having to be warned that it might contain something upsetting. Almost anything truly worth reading or watching and studying does.

I went to college having barely watched anything more violent than The Three Musketeers. I'm very sensitive and empathetic and couldn't even watch episodes of The Three Stooges when I was young. I didn't find all the pain they inflicted on each other to be the least bit funny or appealing. My first year in college, I took a course called Cinema as an Art Form. The first movie we saw was A Clockwork Orange, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that I felt physically ill during most of the film, so violent and upsetting was it. The second movie was Mad Max. It made A Clockwork Orange look like a brilliantly choreographed ballet in comparison, so raw was all its violence. Again, I was physically sick. Do I wish these movies had come with warnings? I can honestly say, "no". Now, I know that's just me, and I'm not someone who'd ever been raped or beat up or shot at before I saw those films, but I do think that watching them was part of a growing up process for me, and they actually turned out to be very important movies in my life, movies I've revisited, especially A Clockwork Orange, which I still consider to be one of the best diatribes against behaviorist theory ever made (next to the original English version -- don't confuse it with the original "make-nice" American version -- of the book).

Those two movies taught me a lot that I don't think our professor even intended to teach. I learned how I relate to violence. I still don't like horribly violent movies, but I can sit through them without getting sick, knowing I can close my eyes if needed, and knowing that sometimes -- not always. Sometimes it's just Hollywood being manipulative or trying to shock us -- the violence is there for a good reason. I learned how to self-censor. I learned that it won't kill me to watch or read something that's terribly upsetting and that, in fact, sometimes if I stick with it, I will discover how strong I am or how lucky I am or how inspiring someone else is.

Trying to make everything safe when nothing is safe is a tricky business, one that doesn't belong in college and university classrooms. Instead of warning students that something might be upsetting, we'd be better off teaching students how to put things into context (a lost art in our society as far as I'm concerned). Is the racism and violence in 12 Years a Slave devastating? Yes. Should we protect students from it, censor what we teach, because they may have suffered from racism in their own lives? Do we stop teaching Freud because he was so sexist, and young women are suffering enough from sexism in the world today? I think that's doing students a disservice, as well as underestimating their wisdom and intelligence. Instead, we should teach them about context, encourage them to explore ideas from historical perspectives, ask them to compare the 19th-century racism/sexism/abuse, etc. that they encounter in literature and film to today's racism/sexism/abuse. The best questions we can ask is "Have we changed? If so, how? If not, why not? Why is it important to study this?"

What I find most disturbing is that the students are the ones asking for trigger warnings. To me, it points to students who are underestimating their own wisdom and intelligence, students who've learned to assume they can't handle things, who've been taught to fear, to be on the alert for upsetting material, not to understand that they might get a different perspective on their own miserable experiences by being introduced to them in other, safe ways. It reminds me of the parent I once knew who came over to dinner at my house with her toddler, and before the child had even tasted what I'd made assured her that if she didn't like it, she didn't have to eat it. Of course, she didn't have to eat it, and I know my well-meaning friend was probably trying to counteract an old-fashioned child-rearing trait in which kids were forced to eat food they didn't like, setting up bad and dysfunctional eating patterns. However, don't suggest to a child that she might not like something before she's even eaten it. Let her try it, see if she likes it, and then tell her she doesn't have to eat it if she doesn't. Who's putting the idea into young people's heads that they might not be able to handle certain books or movies, especially when there's a whole school of psychology out there that believes in using literature as a prescription for coping with various psychological issues?

I'm not saying professors and teachers should be insensitive. It's just that I don't think blanket statements should be made about any work of art. The safety found in classrooms should center around students being allowed to feel what they feel without having to worry about negative repercussions, not around trying to decide what might and might not trigger certain reactions. Students ought to be free to say "I got to the rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I really just couldn't bear to read any more" or to say, "A Clockwork Orange made me feel sick, and I had to leave before it was over" without having to worry about being mocked or getting a bad grade. Great discussions could be had around both those statements, discussions that could, in theory, actually help the person who might have experienced some sort of trauma in the past feel validated or understood, or might help him or her find a strength that's been hidden. After all, isn't that what great art is all about?

Mead concludes her article by saying,

The hope that safety might be found, as in a therapist’s office, in a classroom where literature is being taught is in direct contradiction to one purpose of literature, which is to give expression through art to difficult and discomfiting ideas, and thereby to enlarge the reader’s experience and comprehension. The classroom can never be an entirely safe space, nor, probably, should it be. But it’s difficult to fault those who hope that it might be, when the outside world constantly proves itself pervasively hostile, as well as, on occasion, horrifically violent.

I don't disagree. I would only add that we need to teach students what the purpose of literature is, that it is an excellent mechanism for dealing with the outside world Mead describes. We need to resist their fears and requests to protect them from things that aren't truly dangerous. By understanding the true purpose of literature (the true purpose of all story telling), students will come to understand that, no matter what they might explore through literature, the literature classroom is a safe space, and it just might better equip them to handle real hostility and horror in the outside world.


Bookgazing said...

I'd like to offer up this link as counter argument:

I think one of the best points I've seen made by other people who make use of trigger warnings is that trigger warnings allow people to prepare themselves so they can deal with troubling things which come up. There was a journalist who said if she knows a piece is about eating disorders she'll put a strategy in place before she reads it. It's kind of a courtesy tactic rather than a way of steering people away from media altogether. I don't need trigger warnings but on a lower level scale I remember something from a lesson which I had no idea was coming and it freaked me the hell out, especially as there was no way to opt out of that experience. It still upsets me to think about that experience. Had I been able to prepare on my own ahead of time maybe I'd have coped better and maybe now I would be less wary about particular kinds of stories.

Also, 'The horrible things that happen to us in life rarely ever come with warnings.' First, yeah and that's kind of terrible. Second, if fiction is supposed to be a safe place to examine troubling things then it must by definition have a safer element to it than the terribleness of unpredictable real life. To you that safety is embodied by the fact that nothing that happens is real, but other people's mileage may vary.

I agree that people should teach context without shying away because things are terrible (otherwise we end up in that weird place where white people won't teach about racism because they worry). And that students should be free to say 'I couldn't go on' without being failed. I'm just not quite sure why those two things aren't compatible with throwing an advance warning out for general hard to deal with content.

Emilly Barton said...

Bookgazing, thank you. I was hoping someone would give me a counter-argument. I actually began coming up with my own after I published that piece, thus reinforcing how undecided I feel. I particularly like this statement from the author,

"Honestly, it escaped my notice that we’re living in a world that slavishly caters to the needs of trauma survivors. If someone had told me, I would have made a point of enjoying it more!"

I don't meant do diminish a trauma survivor's feelings at all, the way the author suggests, or to suggest that s/he in any way weak. In fact, I think survivors of any kind of trauma (and let's face it, that means all of us to varying degrees) are strong and resilient and should be empowered by coming to realize how strong and resilient they are.

In thinking about this some more, I realize that when I was studying psychology, we learned about studies concluding that people who know exactly what to expect when they go for major surgery, recover more quickly and have better results. Perhaps trigger warnings could serve the same function.

I also began to think that maybe a classroom full of strangers might not be the best place for someone to have to hear discussions of an upsetting topic. But if s/he were warned ahead of time, given the chance maybe to journal about it before class discussion, they might come out stronger.

My own experience is that movies might need trigger warnings more than the written word, because images are interpreted for the viewer by someone else, and the viewer isn't given the opportunity to imagine them in his or her own way. Having said that, though, I know that one of the most disturbing things (movie or printed word) I ever encountered was an essay I read when I was in my twenties about a man who'd been arrested in the 1960s for protesting the war and had been thrown into prison with hardened criminals, mainly, it seemed to "teach him a lesson." The abuse he suffered still haunts me, and I read that nearly 30 years ago.

Finally, I will say that I don't automatically assume PTSD means female victims, or that I think sexual abuse first when I see the acronym. In fact, that term still makes me think survivors of war (male and female, soldier and civilian) more than anything else. It's taken me a while to get used to the notion that it applies to other traumas, as well.

Anyway, thanks for engaging me in dialogue. I always like to hear other points of view, because that's the only way to come to an understanding.