Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

Trigger warnings again

So I'm pretty intensely pro trigger warnings. I generally agree with people like [personal profile] jimhines: that it's nonsense to consider TWs as censorship. Most of the arguments I've seen against TWs are like Stephen Fry's nonsense (which started this round of the debate), people who feel that the highest moral principle at stake is their so-called free speech right to bully people who are already getting crapped on by society.

Or like that appalling Haidt article, fairly typical of the species, which tried to argue, in a really intellectually bankrupt way, that trigger warnings coddle students. Haidt claims to be worried about "coddling" students by providing trigger warnings, but actually his view leads to the opposite outcome, that only relatively "coddled" students, those who have not experienced major trauma or ongoing chronic discrimination should be able to study at university. I think the choice of language is pretty significant, too; I learned from reading a novel about an early twentieth century gay relationship that coddling was pretty much a homophobic insult, related to mollycoddling or treating someone as if they were effeminate [citation], because men being gentle or kind to eachother is, like, totally gay.)

I do very much buy the framing of (particularly classroom) trigger warnings as a disability accommodation issue. That assumption biases me against any anti-TW arguments, they start to sound like whining about how it's too difficult to deal with all those special needs, which I have no time for. And basically I have a whole pile of articles I've saved over the last few years which support my pro-TW views; I'm not going to dump them all into this post as it's long enough already.

But actually, there are people of good will, not just knobheads like Stephen Fry and Jonathan Haidt, who have concerns about trigger warnings. I try to base my views on contentious issues on actual evidence and logic, not on being on the same side as my sort of people. There are obnoxious people who happen to hold all kinds of views I agree with, and also looking to emulate people-like-me introduces a lot of potential intellectual biases and bubble problems I'd prefer to avoid. Still, I feel obliged to pay attention when someone like [personal profile] legionseagle takes a negative view of TWs. (Ironically she's partly talking about how she doesn't want to be on the same side as Stephen Fry.)

But I'm pretty sure that [personal profile] legionseagle is not simply arguing for an imagined free speech right to bully people; she has real concerns about a lot of bullying going on by people who've c[o]opted "safe space" rhetoric to do it. There's also an interesting artistic integrity argument going on; many stories, in whatever media, make artistic capital out of a horrifying or tragic event coming as a shock to the reader, and having to list everything negative that happens upfront could indeed impact on making some kinds of art. That's less relevant to classroom trigger warnings specifically, but still worth considering, I think. And I can see the argument for preferring the more neutral content note over trigger warning, for lots of reasons including that people don't need to have an official diagnosis of PTSD to be deserving of respect, as well as avoiding the value judgement about which things are inherently horrible. In some ways the most striking part of [personal profile] legionseagle's argument for me is where she explains:
I've enough problems with my own mental health; I can't take responsibility for the whole of the rest of the Internet's.
I haven't quite worked out where I'm going with this but I do think there's a meaningful question of where the onus should be when it comes to helping people to deal with potentially harmful / upsetting / triggering content. And yes, it does seem a danger that women and people who are in generally subaltern positions are going to end up with most of work of providing TWs and related accommodations and support.

Another thinker who really does consider several different sides of the issue, and not a false equivalence between the free speech right to bully people and the right to go through life without being unexpectedly exposed to really harmful stuff, is Meg-John Barker. Here's their fairly old article about A different approach to TWs. They raise many of the same points I'm seeing in the thoughtful anti-TW camp, and take them seriously while being generally in favour of TWs.

I must say, I'm in a somewhat weird position with academic trigger warnings. Because I don't work in film studies or any kind of arts or humanities; I work in medicine, where it's an explicit part of the training that students have to learn to deal with stuff that most lay people would find pretty horrifying or traumatic, illness, gore, death and lots of things from the more unpleasant sides of human existence. We're explicitly trying to train our students for resilience, which is a concept I find in some ways quite worrying, but clearly it is necessary considering things like the exceptionally high suicide rates among doctors. So I wouldn't be expected to give "trigger warnings" for a lot of things that in another context might well be thought triggering, though we do try to provide some kind of safe environment and support for students to deal with all this before they start encountering violence, injury and death for real and up close.

So unlike many academics worrying about this, I don't have much concern that my freedom of speech is going to be challenged or that I won't be able to teach artistically disturbing material. But I do worry that I and my colleagues are not in a good position to protect students as much as we would like to. I mean, generic global 'everything in this course could be disturbing' warnings are worse than useless, but there's the also the issue of what's called authentic experience; the students really are going to have to practise in context where they don't get any warning of horrifying experiences, and that's not just a platitude about how the real world is a horrible place so we shouldn't have to bother being supportive to students, it's completely true in the case of doctors (and many other professions and life paths too, of course). I also worry that people who would be excellent doctors are not making it through the course because of past trauma and mental health and other aspects of discrimination.

But that's why I'm a lot more concerned about students getting too little support than too much, anyway.

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Tags: issues, linkies

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