Trigger warnings in Academia and elsewhere are becoming de rigueur or put in another way : “the in-thing to do.” They are descendants from the Legion of Decency’s censoring of movies that began in the ‘30s protecting young and old from suggestive sexual material and violence. They are reflected in the Hollywood lettering system: G, PG, PG – 13, R, or NC -17 which advises parents of the type of material they are about to view on the big (or now the little) screen so that they can protect their children. There was a finally an acceptance that adults were able to censor their own viewing habits.
Today’s trigger warnings don’t relate to what one might see but what one might hear or read. Although it also may relate to some things that are visible. You all recall the kerfuffle at Wellesley College over the sculpture “sleepwalker” that graced the Wellesley campus. Some students suggested it was: “a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community.” We were told that some feared some students viewing the statute might end up with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The idea behind the need for trigger warnings is to protect the sensitivity of the most sensitive. A discussion of the issue by the American Association of University Professors noted there are proposals: “that students be alerted to all manner of topics that some believe may deeply offend and even set off a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) response in some individuals.”
An article by Boston lawyer Harvey Silverglate touches upon the issue. He wrote about a woman on a panel at Smith College, Wendy Kaminer, who was defending free speech which she suggested was being thwarted by the “proliferation of campus speech codes that restrict supposedly offensive languages.” During her presentation the issue of Mark Twain’s “The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn” came up which apparently is considered “hate speech” because it has the n-word in it.
Ms Kaminer in response to that verbally said the n-word. She noted there is a difference in using it in an academic discussion than when one uses it as an epithet. That went over like a lead balloon and produced an uproar that ebbed a bit when the president of Smith “apologized to students and faculty who were “hurt” and made to feel “unsafe” by Ms Kaminer’s use of the n-word and her defense of free speech.
(As an aside, I note Silverglate quoted Ms Kaminer but he didn’t spell out the n-word. Nor do I feel comfortable using it. I’d suggest it follows Ms Kaminer should not have used it.)
Silverglate spelled out the trigger warning that accompanied an audio recording and transcript of Ms Kaminer’s talk: “Trigger/Content Warnings: Racism/racial slurs, ableist slurs, anti-Semitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexists/misogynistic slurs, reference to race based violence.”
Apparently this warning is routinely given in the academic world without regard for the hurt feelings of males or members of ethnic groups who may likewise suffer when they are slurred. Is hate speech all right when used against some and not others? Who decides?
Along with movies other items were censored in the past. Books like James Joyce’s Ulysses were banned in the United States. In 1953 Judge Elijah Adlow shut down two burlesque houses because the ladies bared too much. Twenty years earlier Mayor James Michael Curley hearing complaints that these businesses were corrupting the morals of the citizens of Boston “decided to take a look himself. He sat through one entire performance. His comment on leaving the theater: “They had a full house, but all of the people there seemed to come from Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.””
The irony of the situation is that it took a while to accept the idea that adults could make decisions for themselves in what to read or view. Now we seem to be going backwards. Some feel we must either protect adults from hearing or seeing things that may upset them or that perhaps students in college are not adults.
Charlotte Atler writing to the Dish about the Wellesley matter noted: “There’s something spoiled about our knee-jerk reaction to abolish anything that could be considered even remotely insensitive. The message is, “it’s possible that someone somewhere might feel momentarily bad because of this, so get rid of it right this second! And by the way, you’re an asshole if you don’t agree.”
I agree that seems to be the case but my thoughts go over to the idea of Orwell’s 1984. By eliminating some topics from discussions either outright or suggesting through trigger warnings they are to be avoided a small group is an attempt to control what we can think or say. As we move on, more and more topics will be added to the list of forbidden topics.
To paraphrase Orwell we’re at the point where: “We all have the right to free speech, but some speech is more equal than others.”