Trigger Warnings: a (non)example from This American Life

This piece mentions female genital mutilation. I wrote it in May, but decided to bring it out of storage because of that UChicago letter

If you work in academia, you’ve probably thought about content/trigger warnings. I certainly have, though mostly as an abstract exercise–I don’t think I’ve been part of a classroom discussion in which I’ve felt especially triggered by what was being discussed. Neither have I been in a class with a professor who’s issued an explicit trigger warning, nor issued one myself as an instructor (though I should have, on at least one occasion that was just brought to my attention in an end-of-term review). I completely see the reasons for content warnings. But until now, I’ve never really felt why they may be essential.

I have a rotation of podcasts that I listen to, in bits and pieces, every week. In the last few months of the stress-induced sleeplessness, I’ve found listening to them to be something like a bedtime story. It means a lot of rewinding and re-listening through the week to parts I’ve slept through, but I like this routine. The content, of course, varies wildly–some days I fall asleep to inane limericks on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, on other days to curiously intense discussions about Twitter’s more arcane corners on Reply All. For the most part, I know what to expect from these different shows. I know, for example, that Dear Sugar is more consistently likely to be emotionally intense than Start Up. But for the more varied shows, like This American Life, I rely on them telling me to watch out for things that might be tough to listen to. Yes, you skeptics, content warnings do exist in “real life”.

Then this week happened. This week’s episode of TAL features a difficult, important piece about female genital mutilation. I’m glad I heard it, but I really wish I could have known beforehand what it was about. By way of introduction, the subject matter is described as “controversial”, and the usual disclaimer that the piece “acknowledges the existence of sex” is issued. Nothing more. Three minutes in, when you hear talk of an operation to get a young girl’s “bug removed”, you realise with a sinking feeling what is coming. Had I known that the episode was going to be about FGM, I’d have listened the next day, not as I was going to sleep. A more explicit content warning was certainly called for, and I’d never found it easier to empathize with why. In fact, I still can’t imagine an example that’s more likely to convince people that content warnings are necessary. If you’re skeptical, go take a listen yourself, and see if you react similarly, viscerally.

But the kicker really is that I was surprised at the lack of content warning, meaning that I’d come to expect something like them in my day-to-day life, even though I’ve never seen one in a classroom. My friend Emmy Pierce phrased it much better than I could, in a Facebook post from last August (shared with permission):

Making use of a trigger warning is kind of like deciding exactly when you’re going to watch that horror movie. When you’re house-sitting alone in someone’s isolated country home? Or in your own cozy apartment, with friends and a comforting pillow to hug? You know it’s a horror movie, so you know what’s coming; and therefore you know how to make the experience not 100% horrible for yourself.

That’s the thing about trigger warnings: in real life, they actually kind of exist — in the form of context. Movie is set in 1930? I might be about to see some racism. I’m working in a criminal courtroom? I might very well hear details about violent crime at some point. Working in an ER? Better be prepared for some gruesome injuries.

But college is not like real life. College is all about making connections where none may appear to exist — like connections between immigration law and violence against perceived foreigners, for example. If you’re a freshman and you sign up for an intro government class or something, how are you supposed to know that one photocopied packet includes gruesome descriptions of physical injury, unless someone tells you? And college is about exposure to new ideas, yes, but also art and historical figures or incidents you may never have heard of. If you’ve never heard of that one required movie in your history of film class, how do you know there’s a graphic torture scene in it? Is it really too much to ask the professor to add the words “contains graphic violence” next to that item in the syllabus?

In real life we have context — and, often, the experience we gained in college — to let us know when something disturbing or triggering is likely to come up. And also, contrary to what most opponents of trigger warnings would have you believe, in real life we often actually have the option to avoid what we don’t want to see. Like turning off the TV when the newscaster says “warning: some viewers may find this footage disturbing.” Or deciding not to be an EMT, given that I feel faint at the sight of blood. But in college we often don’t have that option — you simply have to do the required reading, or you lose out on what you were meant to learn.

Bottom line: COLLEGE IS NOT LIKE REAL LIFE. COLLEGE IS WHERE WE HELP PREPARE STUDENTS FOR REAL LIFE. College is where you learn to swim before jumping into the ocean. Students aren’t asking for flotation noodles. They just want the sharks to be pointed out — so that when it’s time to head out alone, they know how to tell when a shark is getting close.

So come on, just put the goddamn words “contains sexual violence” in your goddamn syllabus. Pretend you’re a newscaster on TV if it helps. You know. Like in REAL LIFE.



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