Some Thoughts on Your Resistance to “Trigger Warnings”

20 May

UPDATED: A sensitive reader suggested I’m violating my own wishes by using such strong language—vitriol, even—to discuss this issue. I would suggest said reader revisit point #10. But sure, here you go: TRIGGER WARNING: If you somehow might have a post-traumatic stress response because a lady yells at you on the internet, you might want to be careful reading below. It’s hard to tell what trauma you would be in recovery from to make this happen, but sure, why not. Also, at the end I describe, very briefly and without any detail at all, having been held captive one night in college. Please be advised that if you are triggered by angry women or vague descriptions of padlocks, this post might upset you.

Everyone else, carry on.

Probably I don’t need to say any of this. Probably you should just go read this fabulous piece by Jacqui Shine on XO Jane and think a bit harder about your bullshit, since you clearly have no idea what it is to suffer trauma or be triggered. But I’ll go ahead and say it anyway, just to get it off my chest.

1. Poor you and your imaginary academic freedom. If you teach at a university in the US, particularly a public/state school, you’ve struck a bargain that requires you to actively ignore said bargain in order to maintain your dignity. Your employer institution allows you to think that you have something called “academic freedom” so that it can pay you less money than it would generally be required to pay someone of your education and experience on an open market. You accept “academic freedom” and a certain illusion of autonomy in lieu of payment for services rendered. You agree to pretend you don’t have a “real” boss, that you’re in charge. And look, I understand that you have to kid yourself about this to go on pretending that your job is something noble and empowering, and that if you didn’t believe those things, you’d have a really hard time getting out of bed in the morning. But “academic freedom” is not a real thing. It hasn’t been for a very long time. Meanwhile, the more you whine about a hypothetical concept infringing on your “academic freedom,” the more you sound like a right-winger who thinks he’s being persecuted every time someone disagrees with his preposterous, loud, boorish assertions.

2. You do not work for a venerable institution of higher learning.* You work for a large corporation. If you teach at a state school, your bosses are everyone in the entire administration, plus your state legislature and the governor. Take a look up that chain of command. When’s the last time it failed to get anything it really wanted? Right: never. And the students and their parents are your customers. You don’t have to like that, but it’s true. That horse has been out of the barn for ten years. I mean, have you seen what public school boards do to reading lists? Your syllabus is next.

*With some notable exceptions. But if you’re at a state school, even a selective, rigorous one, you’re not one of the exceptions.

2.5. Let me put this another way: Performance enhancing drugs. Had each of the major sports leagues resisted self-regulating with testing and suspension systems, more and more government time and media attention would have been devoted to ‘roids and all their glory. (See also: film ratings, the Comics Code, every single voluntary concession any corporate or organizational entity has ever made.) Resistance is futile. You can add a mild statement to your syllabus inviting students to speak with you personally about material that might trigger severe anxiety responses for those who’ve survived serious trauma, or you can add the statement that your bosses will eventually force you to add. Or worse, you can persist in your childish resistance and end up in a system where everything you include in your syllabus—every single reading or viewing assignment—must be pre-approved by those bosses. Sounds fun, no? Just grow up and add a fucking trigger warning. It’s not that hard.

3. You must be fucking kidding me about this “sanctity of literature” bullshit. Explain to me how adding a simple statement like the one described above and then—God forbid!—having an actual conversation with a student impacts the sanctity of literature in any way. Never mind. You don’t have an answer to that question. The answer is that you’re too narcissistic to think that anyone’s perspective on that highfalutin art form but yours is valid or useful. You were, evidently, born in the ivory tower. But again, the only real threat to literature here is if you end up prohibited from teaching it because you couldn’t do so responsibly. Keep in mind that you don’t get to decide what “responsibly” means. Your bosses and customers do.

4. Great literature doesn’t necessarily have to contain elements that trigger trauma responses. The idea that literature and trauma are somehow linked is the same ignorant classist sexist bullshit that asserts that you have to go on safari to write a decent story. It directly devalues books that are domestic in nature, books about work, books about family life. You know, the stuff that a really wide variety of people who are not Hemingway write about.

5. Even great literature that does contain potentially triggering material does not have to be a trigger. Look, I’m glad I read Beloved. The haunting scenes alone changed something of the shape of my imagination. But I still throw up in my mouth a little bit every time I think about mossy teeth—even just the words “mossy teeth.” As someone who had been subject to a pretty miserable sexual trauma, Beloved was never a triggering text. The fact that I knew that I could talk to my professor about the text before class discussion if I needed to made an enormous difference to my ability to engage the text in the first place. There were plenty of classes I simply dropped because I could clearly see that texts would not be discussed in a supportive learning environment. I probably missed out on some great books. Your students will too if you continue to be an arrogant ass.

6. Refusing kindness to others makes you a smaller person. Let’s put this another way. One that strips away the feminization that lets you dismiss the trauma response. Let’s say you have a student who was captured in combat and tortured. Perhaps his PTSD has gone untreated because he’s been socialized to believe that it’s sissy shit (see the linked article in the first paragraph). Meanwhile, you’re hell-bent on teaching A Constellation of Vital Phenomena in your contemporary lit class or novel writing class or whatever fucking course it’s your great privilege to be assigned to teach. Do you really expect that soldier to read the Landfill scenes without the potential for serious psychological damage? Do you really expect him to sit through a class discussion of them? If you do, you’re a bigger douchebag than I could possibly have imagined, one whose self-importance and commitment to his tiny miniature narrow-minded worldview are the only infallible things about him. Meanwhile, how the fuck would it degrade the value of that book to say, in your syllabus or accompanying materials, “This is a book about war. It depicts war graphically in some cases. Please see me in office hours if you expect to be unable to encounter that material thoughtfully and critically,” and to have an actual conversation with your student in your office hours (which, face it, you probably blow off on a regular basis which is probably why you don’t want to deal with it in the first place) to help guide that student safely through the text? It would not degrade the text. The book would still be a fantastic book. It would only allow access to it for someone who otherwise may not feel able to read it.

7. What the hell is this macho bullshit about toughening students up, anyway? What do you think you are, a boxing trainer? How did some mythological masculine toughness become the standard of good education? It’s a half-assed justification if there ever was one.

8. Unless you’re totally a rebel, you add required statements about disabilities of all kinds to your syllabus, anyway. How is this any different? Unless you don’t believe that PTSD is real or disabling, in which case, fuck off with your mid-twentieth-century ignorance.

9. You’re being a melodramatic drama queen. I keep seeing posts and comments where people are essentially telling survivors of rape, war, and abuse to “grow up.” Are you fucking serious? While we’re at it, why don’t we just lock them all out of the academy, and only let in perfect people whose upbringings have been spotless and flawless and charming. They’re so much more mature than the rest of us, right? Never mind that the GI Bill built the modern university system, and without it you and your callous friends probably wouldn’t have jobs. (We don’t even need to talk about the fact that you’d likewise exclude 1/4 of all female college students by this same metric, because if you’re telling rape survivors to grow up, you’re probably Todd Akin anyway, and probably think that girls should be at home in the kitchen barefoot popping out babies.)

10. If you think that PTSD and discomfort are the same thing, you’re a smug privileged fucking idiot. Go stand in the corner and rethink your whole life. While you’re at it, find a way to develop a capacity for empathy. It’s what separates some of us from lower life forms. And it is, as we all like to point out when it’s convenient, the central lesson of reading fucking books in the first place.


Let me tell you a story. My first semester of college I went to a party with a group of trusted friends. A friend of a friend, someone I’d been told I could trust, offered me a drink. A heavily roofied drink, it turned out. I don’t remember very much of what happened after.

I read a lot of books in the following years, most of which had your desired intellectual impact. I naïvely prided myself on my intellectual and emotional toughness, buying into the same gender-stereotyped bullshit that has been driving this entire discussion. I managed to complete bachelor’s degrees in technical writing, creative writing, and literature, plus an MFA in fiction, without being pitched backward into the blackness of that experience.

Then three women were found chained up in a basement in Cleveland. And I remembered a moment in the middle of a night when I pounded with all my strength on the inside of a padlocked door while a friend of a friend who I was supposed to be able to trust sat on the other side of the room and laughed. I remembered a moment of desperate thirst with no water, of scratching at my hands in some bodily manifestation of desperation. I remembered the bruises I found all over me the next day, some of them the indentations of a man’s teeth.

I remembered my tremendous guilt when a friend told me years later that he’d done the same thing to her. I remember thinking that if I’d told anyone, maybe it wouldn’t have happened to her.

But you are happy to endorse a world so hostile to mature conversations about such trauma that you scoff at the notion of including one unobtrusive sentence in your precious inviolable syllabus. Bully for you. Grow the fuck up.

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