Whoa, Trigger!

More Higher Education than music per se for this one.

Roughly two weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article on psychological triggers, trigger warnings, how this may affect the universities whose responsibility it is to expand our minds. The implication was clear: oy vey, what will happen to My CurriculumTM?—My CurriculumTM being (and I fully realize I will enrage a large number of people with this statement) clearly cognate with Bill O’Reilly’s My AmericaTM, a fictitious and in some measure noxious construct wherein one assumes that one’s own memories of something are equivalent to a universal experience, What Is Right, How It Always Was And Should Be. In My AmericaTM, students behaved in class, parent beat ’em by God if they didn’t mind what they were told (and quite right, too), politicians were honest, people were neighborly, and of course Blacks weren’t uppity. In My CurriculumTM, we received substantial intellectual and moral challenges by the Great Works, which made us properly uncomfortable (and, of course, we never rolled eyes or were disinclined to learn righteous lessons from our always intellectually responsible and always tip-top teachers, etc. Said Works often used bad language and depicted bestial treatment of our fellow humans and challenged us and by God we were grateful and now they’re tearing it all down with their lily-livered hypersensitive political correctness and O tempora O mores…

I went to high school and college in the 1970s, and I don’t remember it quite like that. Some of the Great Works left me singularly unimpressed; I’ll simply cite “The Minister’s Black Veil,” presented in high school as a masterpiece, which I considered to be a pile of dark, joyless, Puritan shit. My English professor father did not particularly appreciate that opinion, or perhaps he really didn’t appreciate that it was worded just that way and bellowed at the top of my lungs across the entire house…but there it is. And don’t get me started on William Blake, or Silas Marner. So, yeah, the Great Tradition can be a mixed bag, and genuflection is a suspect response to anything, regardless how authoritative the finger being waggled in our collective faces actually is.

Responses—on various FB feeds, I mean—to the Times article were predictable: we’re a nation of wussies, how dare they refuse to have their minds opened, this hypersensitive trigger warning stuff is all bullshit, what do you expect from those infantilized, spoiled kids today, when I was in school we manned up and read the N-word, by God, and weren’t we brave.

(Bona fides: When I was 9, Mrs. Warren, one of my 4th grade teachers, said the N-word aloud when she read us Huckleberry Finn, and in high school we actually had a campus visit from two members of the American Nazi Party, who explained their position to us [be it said: unsuccessfully]. We saw films about the Holocaust from junior high on, films like The Twisted Cross, Minister of Hate, and Night and Fog, and they had the real horrific footage. So, on the—ah—mean streets of Claremont, the schools didn’t protect us overmuch.)

This discussion took me back to a year or so ago, when I was invited to do a presentation on “Music and Social Change” for an Education Methods class for Ed majors. Well, party time!: you’ve got the Depression, you’ve got workers’ songs, you’ve got the Civil Rights movement, you’ve got Vietnam…I don’t think I made it as far as Vietnam, actually. Although I thought the presentation went well, I subsequently heard that one of the students had strongly objected to my use of the song “Strange Fruit”…see, I played a youtube video that matched the song with photographs of actual lynchings: disfigured Black corpses hanging in trees while white southerners milled around, grinning, proudly pointing, posing, strutting. The student found such images to be disturbing, and felt it was inappropriate. Of course, the teacher of the class responded with some firm words about college being where you get your mind blown, Dr. Bellman did exactly what he should have done, etc. What do you expect, we may think: some little pansy wanted to stay in the womb, comfortable and protected…but not on my watch, Buster. I’m a Professor, by God!

What nags at me is this: I don’t have PTSD, I was never raped, I have not attempted suicide, I have never endured famine or an oppressive, murderous political regime. I am really not in any position to judge how justifiable the demands for trigger warnings are, or are not. Triggers are a valid phenomenon, a known psychological response; in my parents’ generation, they talked about veterans who suffered shell shock, as it was called, and who (say) had to go lock themselves in the bathroom when family fights got too loud. My gut instinct is, predictably, much like the common academic opinion: “Man up! Art is uncomfortable! Real life is uncomfortable!” Then one can point to this truly idiotic case of a teacher being forced out because he taught about Blackface entertainment in connection with American race relations. But, truth? My opinion on this very real issue isn’t worth crap. I don’t know what it is to be set off, entirely out of control, in a fearsome, unworked-out psychological place where all I can perceive is terror, by an image or sound I didn’t see coming. And in the Good Old Days, My CurriculumTM made no allowances for such. Can’t hack it? Tough Scheiß. Don’t go to college, Lame-O. Stay out of Real Colleges, like the other women and minorities.

How does this square with our moral responsibilities vis-à-vis women, Blacks, Latinos, etc. and the cultural centers and assistant deans devoted to them? We were all in favor of those, remember? We all waggle our fingers as the language forcibly evolves (cis-gendered, queer unusable, queer! being very different, “American of Eurasian Descent” rather than “Chinese,” etc.), and we adapt, I have to say, rather quickly—lexicographically and conceptually both. What about teaching the Boston Marathon bombing, say in a Contemporary Issues class, and one of your students is one of these people? Do you, from a premium doctoral program, lecture them about their having to confront things? I hope to hell not.

One more factor, here: I’ve heard about trigger warnings for some time, and I’ve seen concern about them come from three very different directions. One is, yes, the feminist advocacy side, rooting out all kinds of sexism and micro- and macroaggressions, indefatigably Making Us All Aware, and so on. (There is an interesting response to this perspective in the trigger alert story on Voxxi, a news outlet with particular interest in a Hispanic perspective.)

Another is the religious side. Forgot about them, did we? There’s nudity; I shouldn’t have to see that piece of art. You didn’t warn me. This depicts drinking; I’m against that and you have to make a different assignment for me. This is the symbolism of another religion; I shouldn’t have to look at this. Artwork X depicts same-sex relations, or different-race relations, or whatever, and I shouldn’t have to look at it. Your discussion of the criminal issues facing the Catholic Church is anti-religious. I’m a Creationist and I shouldn’t have to study evolution. Here’s my lawyer. (Don’t laugh. It’s out there.)

There’s also the differently abled community, who are also highly attuned to triggers, risks, etc., and are very interested in accommodation of all different kinds of behaviors and awareness of all different kinds of needs.

So here’s a very cynical observation: there is clearly a need for awareness of all our differences, but it is undeniable that those who shriek the loudest and most persistently are, y’know, good for business. Activism is activism, and if your gig is to be an activist, the goal is to get the other side to blink/accommodate/pay—it’s an oppositional situation. Activists want to score and win, not open up deep philosophical debates.

Thus: needs, accommodations, hypersensitivities, insensitivities, exaggerations, willful ignorance. Solution?

I don’t have one, and moreover I think this entire issue should be handed over to real professionals. We have medical ethicists; I’m sure there are educational ethicists (and/or philosophers) who can help with this, spelling out the issues, balances, risks, faultlines. As angry and frustrated as any of us get, we’re still more inclined to reason from our perspective, our main sphere of interest. And our perspective is, too often, little more than our convenience and habit.

Any grown-ups out there who can help with this? I’m not convinced that I’ve yet heard from anyone with a sufficiently broad view, educational and humanistic both. It is a fact that whether or not it should be, it amounts to a turf fight: all sides feel they have territory to defend or (potentially) to gain. There have to be voices more reasonable than those we have so far heard who can suggest reasonable limits, common ground, and practical approaches.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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9 Responses to Whoa, Trigger!

  1. Chris Smith says:

    Smart, thoughtful, and simpatico, as always. I don’t have answers, either–but I sat in group therapy sessions for enough years for your fundamental insight (e.g., “don’t presume you know what ought or oughtn’t to trigger psychological reactions based on someone else’s past history”) to be very persuasive. But here’s a brief syllabus excerpt from the trenches that at least acknowledges the complexity of individuals’ response to difficult stimuli:

    Course content issues: This course will observe the university’s guidelines for avoiding sexual harassment. However, because the arts often imitate and represent human living and because sexuality, politics, religion, and personal ethics are all part of life, some materials in this course may deal with sexual, political, religious, or ethical behaviors, situations, or language. People offended by such subjects may want to reconsider taking this course.

  2. Jonathan Bellman says:

    That’s a good start, Chris. One problem is that the boilerplate at the end of my syllabi already amounts to more than a page; guaranteeing that something is of a length that will never be read doesn’t seem like much of a winning strategy. However, if brought up on Day 1…food for thought. Thanks!

    • Chris Smith says:

      I also include an “Informed Consent” clause at the very end of the syllabus, to wit:

      Informed Consent
      I have read and understood the contents of the syllabus for this class, and agree to abide by the rules, guidelines \and schedule contained within it. In particular, I understand that
      1. Dr Smith also agrees to abide by the rules, guidelines, and schedule in the syllabus.
      2. I will consult the syllabus if I have a question about the course rules, guidelines, and schedule.
      3. Dr. Smith cannot make special exceptions for me without being unfair to everyone else taking this course.
      I understand that my continued enrollment in the course will be taken as indicating my consent to these conditions

      And then I tell them verbally: “If you read nothing else in the whole syllabus, read that ‘Informed consent clause’.” Tends to evoke significantly higher attention.

      • I do something like that—general course policies, not to do with trigger warning-type stuff—and give a first assignment to read it. Then next to it it’ll sometimes say, “The first person to use the word ‘cadence’ [or some such] in our next lecture will get a $5 gift certificate to . . . ” I make them wait till I have begun lecture, so they can’t just walk in with a mad-lib. Then when I pass on the envelope the rest of them wake up too. This all has gotten so complicated . . .

  3. Deborah Kauffman says:

    Nicely done, my dear.

  4. It is refreshing to hear questions asked rather than hasty arguments proposed. I do have some thoughts on this, and I’ll say first that I am entirely sympathetic to the initiative but have a hard time imagining how it could work.
    • I agree completely that professionals should deal with this sort of issue. It seems one more matter we profs are expected to address, and no matter how responsible and committed, I doubt many of us have the skills. I worry about where this could go in the current climate (corporatization of the university, challenges to intellectual freedom, and so on).
    • I am really not sure how one could identify triggers reliably. Some of the discussion about this matter seems to suppose that a faculty member will be able to point to “trauma genres”: rape, torture, etc. But my understanding of (from life experience, more than academic inquiry) is that the trigger is unlikely to be predictable. For example, a student with an abusive alcoholic parent may be triggered by the sounds of ice clinking in a glass, as portrayed in a scene from a film. A student who has been sexually assaulted by a former teacher may be triggered by a two-part invention they worked on together. A student who has been bullied may be thrown by the mention of a yellow school bus. In other words, as far as I understand,—and I am happy to be informed otherwise—the trigger may be (usually is?) a stimulus rather than a topic or plot point—though watching “The Lost Weekend” may not be easy either. And they may be (probably are) different for everyone. I also would like to know more about this: is an interpersonal interaction *in* class any less likely to trigger a student than course content? It seems that we have work to do here too, as in faculty interactions with one another.
    • Usually when I have seen trigger warnings they have been, say, on FB pages, feminist ones, where the poster wants to prepare the audience that what follows concerns a potentially traumatizing topic. (Perhaps they are used elsewhere?) It does not always succeed, because sometimes one sees a bit of text or image that cannot be avoided. This is, in so many ways, a very different scenario from an academic classroom. (I myself find the invocation of “TW” itself a bit dramatic, though I suppose it fits the medium.
    • I’ve been horrified by the ill-willed retorts to this and also have fear—pragmatically driven—at how such a practice could be misused. How it could have very different effects on different faculty. How anyone has the time or expertise even to oversee it. And the issue of the students calling the shots . . . That is not to say it should not be pursued, but . . .
    • The way I have chosen to think about this, meantime, is as follows: First, I have always tried to create an inclusive classroom environment where the students can raise questions or concerns about material—now, this *is* usually content rather than the sound of an ice cube. And for a long time I have been offering something like TWs in class. Some students get frightened at the *Psycho* shower scene or a “real cow” being slaughtered in “Strike.” What to do when playing a clip of “Do the Right Thing”—which I mis-timed a bit last fall and so did not get to warn the students about the N-word? I explained after that I meant to call attention to the “language,” but none of them—this was a very diverse class—seemed fazed. In a grad seminar I planned to play a movie with gruesome violence, and although I avoided the explicit parts, I just asked, week earlier, anyone to let me know if they expected (as if they could predict) that this might cause a problem. I saw a Latina student cringe when a Caucasian student said something about “illegal aliens,” and I tried to open a discussion. (These too are more about “content” than trigger.) So, generally, I would advocate for a classroom where as much awareness, inclusion, transparency, and openness to ideas as possible is cultivated. Not that that is easy.
    • In re: Jonathan’s description of the past, I remember feeling marginalized and provoked in so many ways throughout my own education; I want my students to have it better.
    • I also find, often, that students are much more resilient than we might think an have a pretty sophisticated semiotic apparatus.
    • By no means would I say students should “just deal with it”: I want to see more compassion and understanding, and I would love to see more acknowledgment of vulnerability in our culture in general.
    • The examples I gave above (ice cube, two-part invention, school bus) are indeed from my own experience.

  5. Jonathan Bellman says:

    Agreed, it is a good essay. Interestingly, the comments (and I hear my wife’s voice in my head: “Why would you EVER read comments!?”) after the article testify to our insistence on only reading the part of an article or statement that we agree with.

    I’ve seen trigger warnings not only on feministic pages, but also neurodiverse ones, etc. I’ve *never* seen them on a militantly religious person’s page, but I don’t go to a lot of those.

  6. Thanks for the reply—I notice sometimes the inverse, only reading the comments one disagrees with, in order to rant. (On FB, that is—as a latecomer, I remain grimly fascinated, for now.)

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