My trigger-warning dilemma

Last month, I published a piece on Feministing about being sexually assaulted four years ago.  There’s usually a lag between submitting and posting, and it can vary.  I wasn’t sure how long it would take for my post to actually show up on the page.  I hit submit around dinnertime on September 25th, and then I closed up my office and went home.

Actually, I stopped to watch a screening of Inside Out with a friend and his little brother.

So I watched a CGI celebration of catharsis and then I went home.

That night I had a string of anxiety dreams, one after the other, waking up at four in the morning so upset that my stomach didn’t feel like part of my body.

I didn’t dream about my assailant.  I never have.

These nightmares were about my friends reading what I had written and finding out what had happened to me.  That was my unbearable fear.
On the day the post went live, I had an anxiety attack as soon as I saw it.

I’ve been having these episodes on and off for the past few years, whenever I get triggered.  For a long time, I didn’t think of them that way.  I thought of them as “being upset” if I acknowledged them at all.  Most of the time, I pretended they weren’t happening and waited them out.  For a long time, my feelings were just this humiliating reflex that happened whenever some male friend tried to hug me.  They meant I was weak and mildly crazy.

I was a staunch supporter of “trigger warnings,” but I never, ever described them as something that I might need myself.

There’s been a backlash against trigger warnings recently, academics and writers deriding them as silly or repressive.  Neil Gaiman titled his latest story collection Trigger Warning, I guess in an attempt to seem outré or dark or whatever.  Triggering is the new politically incorrect: a way to term oneself a rebel, an iconoclast, a standup comic who probably won’t have a career five years from now.  (Hey, you kids remember Dennis Miller?)

Usually, the person demanding a trigger warning is portrayed in a particular way.  Always young, mostly women.  Very often a student attacking a professor, always “aggrieved” or upset, often displaying signs of emotional instability or hysteria.  These trigger-victims almost always make demands that are unreasonable.  They almost never either directly reference trauma or force the writer to directly confront trauma.  Instead, the author confronts and rejects the trigger – and all triggers – as a self-indulgent waste of time.

A lot of these writers are starting to valorize “triggering” material as the good stuff – real life, classic literature.

This is the context for Rani Neutill’s Salon essay, “My trigger-warning disaster: ‘9 1/2 Weeks,’ ‘The Wire,’ and how coddled young radicals got discomfort all wrong.”

It does sound like her students were a bit much.  It is reasonable to expect that a course on sex in movies will include depictions of coercion, misogyny, violence, exploitation, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and abuse.  A responsible teacher would foreground all of those themes, since anything else would be pandering.  It might well be impossible to comb through every clip for advance warnings without shutting down discussion.  At the very least, that takes up a lot of time and trouble that might be better spent examining these texts.

So I sympathize with Neutill and understand why she decided that she couldn’t honor these demands for trigger warnings.  I also see why she ultimately decided that trigger warnings were a gigantic pain in that ass, and that they were incompatible with challenging course material.

As a lesbian, I agree with her argument that content warnings and triggers can become a way to exclude marginalized groups, partly because we are “challenging” and “controversial,” but also because our stories tend to include a whole lot of violence, ugliness, and horror.  Queer cinema with all the painful parts taken out would basically be that movie where Piper Perabo falls in love with a florist, not even that other movie where Piper Perabo is best friends with a hawk and throws herself off a building (both metaphors for lesbianism).

But I disagree.

Neutill’s argument fails in the same way as those articles about “political correctness” and “civility” and so on.”  She defines trigger warnings as a blanket intervention.

She also defines “race, gender, and sexuality” as “inherently uncomfortable” topics of discussion.  But are they?  I’ve had discussions about all three topics that have been illuminating and frustrating, but also supportive and empowering.  I’ve felt “discomfort” because I’m being challenged on my biases and comfort because I’m being coddled.  I’ve felt discomfort because I’m being treated as subhuman and comfort because I’m being heard.

It sounds like Neutill is talking about a specific kind of resistance: “These are inherently uncomfortable topics that force students to think critically about their privilege and their place in the hierarchy of this world.”  She’s describing a student who doesn’t want to confront privilege – the white kid who doesn’t want to hear about police brutality or deportation, the straight kid who doesn’t want to hear about homophobia, the young man who doesn’t want to hear about rape culture.  Those students are part of these “difficult” discussions, and they were a vocal component of Neutill’s classroom, but they’re not the focus of the “trigger warning” trend and they shouldn’t be conflated with all students challenging “triggering” material.

Neutill is afraid of losing discretion, and that’s fair.  She didn’t have job security as a “wandering postdoc,” and seems to have read the room as a potentially hostile climate for her pedagogy and her career.  She also sees her students’ willingness to make demands on her time and syllabus as their sense that she is not an authority – because she is a young woman of color, not an “old white dude.”

That doesn’t mean discretion can’t exist alongside trigger warnings.  If we can acknowledge “microaggressions” but toss out “reverse racism,” then we can distinguish among trigger warnings.  We can prioritize a domestic-violence survivor over an arachnophobe.  We can take a girl who doesn’t want to re-enact the Middle Passage more seriously than a man who doesn’t want to read Fun Home.  We can decide that Irreversible is more incendiary than Inside Out.  And we can decide that some forms of “discomfort” are necessary and useful, whereas some aren’t.

Even if we can’t evaluate degrees of trauma or oppression, we can develop strategies for mediating triggers.  We can offer general or specific warnings.  We can facilitate discussions, during and outside of class.  We can explain that this material will be “challenging,” and that anyone participating will have to engage with disturbing material.  Like Neutill herself, we can differentiate between “surprise graphic rape scene!” and “Psycho contains (spoiler!) some serial killing.”  We can see the commonsense rationale behind Neutill’s argument here:

Later that day, I had a white female student come to my office hours crying. Between picking up tissues and blowing her nose she said, “I’m doing a minor in African American Studies. How could your first images of black people be that horrible?” I told her that I understood her concerns. I went on to explain how the class was a historical look at sex on screen and as the reading for the class articulated, it was one of the first film’s to show black people having sex and was important to film history.

…so that “racism is sad” doesn’t give a white student a free pass out of a scary conversation.

What we shouldn’t do is dismiss students wholesale.  I value trigger warnings on a pragmatic level, but also for the way they position survivorship and oppression: communal issues we all need to respect and acknowledge.  If “trigger warnings” become normalized, I don’t have to feel histrionic because I was sexually assaulted, or delicate because casual homophobia pisses me off.

Should we even try to sort the whole world into “harmful” and “non-harmful” reference points so that people are never retraumatized?  No, of course not. Would it be nice to know that I’m going to see a graphic rape scene right before a meeting with my boss?  Yes, it absolutely would.  Do I need to hear “Life is unfair, and it could have been so much worse?”

When we tell all our students that “Life is a trigger!” what does each one hear?

One thing that upsets me – triggers me, I can say it – is physical contact with men.  Trigger warnings vs. trigger warnings run amok is like the difference between asking friends not to hug me and avoiding intimacy for years on end. Both of those strategies are an attempt to avoid triggers.

One of them is reasonable and workable, but only if everyone around me knows what I need.  One of them is toxic and damaging, but it’s something I can take care of all by myself, without anyone ever figuring out that I’m a survivor.  Guess which one seems preferable, in a culture where some people are starting to see “trigger warning” as a badge of honor

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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