Friday, September 09, 2016

Trigger Warnings?

NPR did a segment on trigger warnings for All Things Considered recently, "Half Of Professors In NPR Ed Survey Have Used 'Trigger Warnings'"'  They sent out a survey and received 800 responses back (last fall); so it's not randomized or anything, nor is it super representative.  But it is interesting, in part because they concentrated on public universities, the sorts of schools most students attend.

I tend not to give specific trigger warnings, more because I'm forgetful than because I think they're problematic.  I do spend some time at the beginning of literature type courses asking students to think about the making of art using violence, and I'm pretty up front that the literature I teach often represents violence in a variety of ways.  And it represents non-consensual sex.  And those are things we need to think hard about, including asking ourselves why it is that we humans seem to enjoy aesthetic representations of violence (including non-consensual sexual violence).

My local public library has electronic lending now, and I've started "taking out" audio books.  The other day, I loaded one up based on the title (which was something to do with a leopard or ocelot or something), and without carefully reading whatever blurb was available. 

I listen to these at night, to help me fall asleep.  So I tend to start them as I'm in the final stages of getting ready, taking out my contacts, stretching, changing for bed.  (Sometimes it takes me a few minutes to go back to find where I remember from the night before.)

Anyway, this one started with a scene of torture.  And I found myself simultaneously horrified and weirdly captivated.  And then I turned it off.  I didn't want to go on.  (Instead, I found what's turning out to be a very good book by Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth.)

As you can probably guess, the character being tortured was female, and the torture was somewhat sexualized.  (Less sexualized than, say, in the tattoo books.  Though, I think this one, when I looked later, was also set in Scandinavia.)

It seems to me that (and maybe this is based on the popularity of the tattoo books, which I listened to on CD while driving) we've gotten a lot more interested in the past few years on really graphic representations of torturing female characters, especially in highly sexualized ways.  We're taking more pleasure in graphic representations of specific violence towards women.

And I think about the representations of violence in, say, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Spenser, etc, and there's certainly a fair bit of glee to causing characters' bodies pain (think Titus or "The Prioress's Tale"), the enjoyment of causing characters' bodies pain seems way more of late.

So, there I was, wishing I'd realized that the audio book was going to be so violent, and knowing that I wouldn't willingly listen to that violence.  In other words, I'd have liked a trigger warning, and would have avoided the audiobook altogether if I'd had one.

I think for me, I'm less comfortable with really explicit, graphic representations, less comfortable with sexualized torture, especially aimed at female characters, and relatively more comfortable with direct violence in battle.  I get teary during the Hotspur death scene, but I don't turn away.  I can manage through the Gloucester blinding, even on stage. 

(I don't go to scary movies, and don't watch TV that's scary; I have a pretty low tolerance for scary, and have since I was a little kid and wouldn't stay in the room while my cousins watched monster movies from the 50s.  I can recognize that Breaking Bad was artistically amazing, but I gave up watching it pretty quickly.   Yet, I've read quite detailed accounts of torture of POWs in Vietnam, and so forth.  I think I'm less tolerant of torture as I get older.)

What I wonder is how we (as teachers) decide what we'll teach and why?  How we as consumers of culture decide what we'll consume (and thus support)?  How do we help students think productively about their own decisions?


  1. Because of the particular courses I teach, I'm rarely if ever teaching material that one might anticipate anyone else having a big emotional reaction to. But just last week I put a note in my syllabus about an assignment that asked students to listen to a Radiolab episode about someone who--it turns out--committed suicide. The episode itself is about the way this man pursued a series of questions about altruism and selflessness, and in my assignment we're exploring how Radiolab uses questions to complicate rather than simplify issues. I was rather shocked in the last minute of the episode to hear the narration of someone discovering the suicide. Since that was surprising and not really related to the content, I did note that it happens in the last minute so students could be prepared. This has got me thinking about preparing students in two ways: one, when the content itself might be hard (e.g. I have a colleague in Poli Sci who teaches things like history of sexual assault--she lays a lot of groundwork first and always assumes there will be students who have been assaulted at some point in the past in the room) and moments like my class, where something might be hard, but it's not the key detail.

    I'm with you: have always had a low scary tolerance and really really don't want to read graphic violence.

  2. Ditto on low tolerance myself.

    Anita Sarkeesian had a really great video series of depictions of violence against women in video games. This, of course, is why she's received so many threats.

    I do have trigger warnings in my one class that needs them (the inequalities class). I don't call them trigger warnings, I just warn about the content. When I took over the class it was about 80% dead babies, and now it is much less of that. But we still have to learn about sad things. Because inequalities lead to sad things.

  3. Huh, I have to admit that I do warn that some of the images are going to be graphic when I show WWI photographs, but it would never occur to me to do it for a work of fiction or film (although there were some times, in retrospect, when I probably should have done). Fictional representation of violence simply doesn't bother me, because in my head it's in a totally different category than real-world violence (if anything, I find it a moderately enjoyable adrenaline rush), and I guess I tend to assume it's the same way for everyone.