On Academic Trigger Warnings
TRIGGER WARNING: This post may upset you. If you are one of those people who believe that a mere difference of opinion, or an opinion that suggests, however remotely, something negative about your personal choices is tantamount to“shaming” and an all-out personal attack, click away now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Years ago, I was involved in a case where the plaintiff, an elderly woman, claimed to have tripped and fallen in a department store. The defect in question was a “lip” on the floor, an elevation so slight and gradual, it was virtually unnoticeable. Nevertheless, the plaintiff tripped over it and was injured. At trial, she gave moving testimony about how, due to her cardiovascular disease, she could not lift her feet off the floor and had to shuffle when she walked, how her eyesight was poor, and how because of these problems, even a virtually imperceptible change in the surface was a dangerous trap for someone like her.
In his summation, the defense attorney said the following:
Ladies and gentlemen, the world cannot be made completely flat. The plaintiff is a nice lady. She suffers from debilitating chronic conditions. There is no question that, if the world WERE flat, life would be easier for people like her. I am not saying you shouldn’t have sympathy for her. It’s an understandable wish for the world to be flat and completely free of all potential trip hazards. But as an expectation, it’s both unreasonable and unrealistic. You can’t make the world flat.
This summation spawned a figure of speech around the office: “You can’t make the world flat.”
This post took a long time to write and went through multiple radical revisions. In the end, I decided to go with my usual gut feelings and NOT talk about my personal experiences. There are multiple reasons for this; but mostly, as my regular readers may have noticed, I am a very private person and I hate the idea of submitting the minutiae of my life — very painful minutiae, in this particular case — to the judgment of random strangers.
So I am just going to say generally that life sucks. It sucks for some more than for others, for sure, but life’s suckitude generally transcends racial, gender and class lines. When I say that life sucks, this is not to trivialize the experiences of survivors of sexual assault. Obviously — and to distinguish my arguments from those of misogynistic assholes — being sexually assaulted is in no way comparable to getting into a minor fender-bender (for instance). That said, however, sexual assault is only one of any number of highly traumatic experiences that people encounter all too often. Some of these (like sexual assault) are in the nature of dramatic events where a tremendous amount of trauma is delivered in a single blow. Others (like dealing with severe degenerative illness, for example) are more in the nature of a slow burn. Bottom line, extreme misery unfortunately seems to be the norm in human existence: terminal illness; having a disabled child; losing a loved one to murder, suicide or drug addiction; living through a bombing raid; miscarriage (sometimes as late as half-way through the pregnancy); abuse — this is but a sampling. And when it comes to trigger warnings, it doesn’t help, of course, that these are the very things that are most worthy of serious discussion.
My point isn’t that we shouldn’t do anything to reduce suffering — but that there is so much in meaningful human discourse that’s potentially triggering to someone, the only way to eliminate the danger is to shut the hell up. About everything.
I work in medical malpractice defense. There are attorneys in my firm who have battled cancer, and lost loved ones to cancer — they still have to handle cancer cases. There are lawyers who have tried unsuccessfully for years to have a baby, and they have to work on infertility cases, as well as cases where parents have seven unwanted kids in a row and treat them like a nuisance. I have to handle brain-damaged-baby cases and cases where shitty, neglectful parents have healthy, normal kids. We have to do this, because it is our job. We can’t start filtering out files and assign them based on what might potentially trigger negative emotions based on an attorney’s personal experience. In this business, as in the larger world, we have to face things that make us sad, indignant, pessimistic and angry, and still go on, because there is no other way to live. We as a society forget sometimes that — while an excess of anything is harmful — sadness, anger, indignation and shame are all normal human emotions, and a normal part of the human condition.
I’ve had some serious traumatic experiences besides what I’ve already (obliquely) mentioned. I don’t want to go into them because tragedy olympics is not my thing, and I don’t feel obligated to prove to anyone that I’ve had it bad enough to have a valid opinion on this issue. Suffice it to say, if I were to block out everything that might resurrect some unpleasant memory or make me think of things I can’t change, I’d have to spend the rest of my life cowering in a bunker. Nor could I reasonably or realistically expect people to self-censor enough never to say stuff that might “trigger” me.
It is impossible to sanitize one’s world by removing anything that has the potential to be disturbing. Even if it were possible, it wouldn’t be a good thing, especially in an academic setting. Education, real education, is not merely acquiring a set of discrete marketable skills or reinforcing one’s existing beliefs. The whole point of education is teaching people how to think by exposing them to views and arguments that are at odds with what they take for granted — which often entails being exposed to things that are uncomfortable, disturbing and upsetting. This doesn’t mean you should embrace all contrary views as valid, but at a minimum, you should get a deeper understanding of things and refine your beliefs about them. That cannot be accomplished without challenges, and challenges are unpleasant.
To be clear, I am all for being sensitive and tactful towards others based on their experiences, nor can I blame people for avoiding certain topics that they find painful. I can understand if some professors voluntarily signal to their students that some of the class material is especially hard to take. What I don’t want to see, however, is mandatory trigger warnings applied to — let’s face it — a good chunk of college courses, if not the majority, with the attendant culture of sanitizing one’s college experience and being entitled to avoid anything that makes one uncomfortable. That would hardly prepare students for a successful academic career or, you know, just real life. A big part of the maturation process is learning to live with things that make us feel bad and remaining functional despite being needled. It hardly serves this end for an academic institution to cultivate the expectation of living in a protective bubble.
There is another big problem with trigger warnings in general. People who are gratuitously nasty and put out deliberately offensive content are not going to use trigger warnings — because doing that would defeat their intention to offend. Seriously, can you imagine Daniel Tosh prefacing a rape joke with a trigger warning? The only ones who will put content warnings on their material will be people who actually have something thoughtful and meaningful to say about a subject. And those are the very people whose thoughts and ideas will float by the uber-sensitive unshared. It’s a form of censorship, and ultimately one that will affect moderate and nuanced thinkers the most.
On the flip side, a trigger warning may come to serve as a carte blanche to spout anything.
Horrible things happen to all of us. Not in equal measure by any means, but still — horrible things happen to so many people that virtually anything apart from weather forecasts and cooking recipes is potentially triggering to someone. Believe me, I am not trivializing people’s struggles with traumatic experiences — merely pointing out that traumatic experiences are so common and so varied, that the idea of creating a “safe” environment scrubbed of any reference to a traumatic experience is unrealistic to the point of being insane. It’s impossible to shield oneself from unpleasantness. It’s impossible not to encounter things that are upsetting. Because any way you slice it, the world is a bumpy place, and it can’t be made flat. The only way to deal with it is to accept the bumps, and do one’s best to remain standing, or, having fallen, get up, dust off and go on. That’s not heroism. It’s just common sense.
That is all.