In (Limited) Praise of Trigger Warnings

Higher education news lately is filled with stories of student “crybullies” and “snowflakes” who demand Draconian limits on free speech and expression in order to avoid being upset by course content.

Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk, writing in The New Yorker in 2014, explained one example:

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.

Today students are easily distressed. At Emory University they swoon at the sight of “Trump 2016” chalked on walls and sidewalks. At San Francisco State, a black female student attacks a white male student for the offense of “cultural appropriation,” because he wears his hair in dreadlocks.

Even Columbia University, birthplace of the great books Core Curriculum, responded to student fears of being emotionally triggered by rapes in Ovid’s classic Metamorphoses. One egregious offender was “Apollo and Daphne” wherein the amorous god, having been plunked by a vengeful Cupid, chases the nymph through the woods until her river god father turns her into a tree. Helpless, Apollo then falls in love with the tree.

I laughed at the mindless absurdity of the complaints, then gasped when Columbia decided to replace Ovid with Toni Morrison.

Stepping back from mockery of trigger warnings, I recalled when I taught Introduction to Literature at Fort Ord, CA, ending the course with a familiar pairing of Heart of Darkness (book) and Apocalypse Now (film).

One night Sergeant Branson lingered after class, then approached my lectern. He shuffled his feet and looked at the floor. “Uh, Professor? There’s something I have to ask you.” 

“Sure, Sergeant. What can I do for you?”

“Sir, I can’t watch Apocalypse Now.”

I was puzzled. The film was a masterpiece, combining Michael Herr, John Milius, Joseph Conrad, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Francis Ford Coppola. Mostly, I wanted my students to view the film literarily and see how the contours of Conrad’s novella persist even in the modern setting and cinematic medium.

I asked, “Why, Sergeant?”

He glanced at me. “I was in Vietnam, sir, and like Kurtz in the book, I also…‘went native.’”

What a burden: I could actually cause a student to suffer on account of my choice of materials.

Of course I excused the sergeant and gave him an alternative assignment, but I started thinking. Colonel Kilgore’s 12-minute Air Cav attack on the village of Vinh Dinh Dop was arguably the most kinetic battle scene ever filmed—insectoid Hueys swooping to “The Ride of the Valkyries” and machine guns, mortars, and rockets, and a G.I.’s leg blown off.

Importantly, Apocalypse Now is pre-CGI (computer generated imagery). Therefore, when you saw the jungle blown up by napalm, Coppola’s crew had blown up a jungle with 1200 gallons of gasoline. And the film was shot in the Philippines with no restrictions against animal cruelty. When you saw a carabao slaughtered, a carabao had been slaughtered.

In Apocalypse Now, fiction was always just a step away from reality. My sergeant lived that Vietnam reality, and he didn’t need another tour of duty. Working with combat veterans, I became more careful about trying to anticipate how students might suffer from my assignments. My literary lessons paled in importance.

Shouldn’t students who have been exposed to violence and horror be warned, if not spared from revisiting it? So I started to explain to my students on Day One that a classroom is not a “safe space”—it’s a profoundly unsafe space where cherished assumptions may be overthrown at any moment. I also developed a general purpose caveat for my syllabi:

WARNING: This course is intended for adults and may include films, language, images, or comments by other students which some people may find offensive or disturbing. While our consideration of such material is strictly academic and related to instruction, if you are sensitive to profanity, violence, harsh language, and/or sexual content please use caution and proceed at your own risk. Your continuance past this warning creates a contractual readiness to view/hear/read these materials of your own free will and to allow others to discuss them. 

Even that general warning is not always enough; I make specific warnings about certain materials. My critical thinking course, for example, expects students to confront and understand the logical and epistemological questions raised by the McMartin Preschool, Fells Acres Daycare, and Wenatchee “recovered memory” cases. In particular, many students find that reading Lawrence Wright’s Remembering Satan is a dark and harrowing experience, even for those who have not been sexually abused (whether in fact or in imagination). I don’t want curious students picking it up weeks before we are to discuss it.

Students also must research the Holocaust, where they will be hard put to avoid images of death camps. These materials can have significant consequences. For example, as a girl, Susan Sontag discovered a book of death camp photographs “that I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July 1945…. When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.” I warn students about what they will see and recommend caution if they are particularly tender-hearted.

I argue that up-front, students should be made aware that they will be forced to contemplate difficult material in general and in certain specific assignments. They have to decide whether the class is worth it. I say “forced” because my obligation is to present each course’s necessary and proper subject matter and not cave in to “the madness of crowds.” College should defend against, rather than nurture, the hysteria du jour, whether it is recovered memory, Holocaust denial, or the “campus rape crisis.”

But in the process, one still should wish to “do no harm.” Reason must prevail. FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathon Haidt, in a widely-discussed The Atlantic article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” concluded that extreme measures to protect student sensibilities do more harm than good, saying: 

a campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

I agree. Professors should take steps to protect the truly damaged, but students who think they are emotionally triggered by imaginary, supernatural beings with magical powers would be better served by paying a visit to the campus health center.