Trigger warnings and institutional ethics

A number of smart people have been sharing this Inside Higher Ed post by faculty members on why they will not use Trigger Warnings, and it is one of the best I’ve seen so far, I think because it is a collective text and therefore more careful than most anti-trigger warning arguments that ultimately resort to dismissal (I love Kang’s stuff so was disappointed in that New Yorker piece).  I have not been keeping up with the ever-increasing pile of op-ed, much of which wins transartorialism’s Trigger Warning Op-Ed Bingo. There is something about the op-ed form that is itself the biggest problem in this discussion I suspect, and I have learned the most in debate in the Entropy series, which performs the decomposition of held opinion that I think critical scholars resisting TWs are trying to hold onto.

But even the most careful version of “Trigger Warnings Are Flawed” seems weak against the fundamental forces that have brought TWs to the prominence they have. In no particular order and far from comprehensive, I would list:

Firstly, a range of collective languages for trauma, first institutionalised in the United States but today globalised via the internet, that the historical version of the modern university has been indifferent to and has no mechanism to engage;

secondly, a massive growth in non-male participation in the university institution which largely existed to reproduce the patriarchal order, and whose genres of work largely reflect that order;

thirdly, the marketisation of the university that places the individual consumer at the centre of the teaching experience, who deserves value and service from an institution that has historically aimed to exclude without responsibility to anyone other than itself

fourthly (related) a “culture of the self” trackable through the development of social media worlds where one’s political goals are engaged through expressive participatory individuality. One has a “profile” as a hashtag or tumblr activist to tend with/against others as an authorial persona, and the form of that authorship has a technical structure that is more responsive to a social world than any previous form of writing, but with mechanisms of response that are individualised (as I explored in relation to Facebook here). In this mode of activism, one’s own body can collectively represent friends and followers – one’s own freedom can stand in for others. In her superb discussion with Dave Chappelle, Dr Maya Angelou speaks of the “icon” whose key characteristic is expressive courage. It seems to me that this type of identity-driven activism is the modality behind TW and related moves to bend the institutional world toward an ethics of individual respect. It says, “I am here, and I am not going to let you not see me.” This version of individual political action is quite different than the “opting out” the baby boomer generation understood as constitutive of individuality – but those individuals of the boomer generation and gen-X largely didn’t critique their own class position that made their “negativity” legible in the political calculus.

The above suggests that the trigger warning is an epochal, complex, intractable problematic – the most valuable move of the Entropy series was to discuss the generational aspects head on. But I think the biggest issue is what is at stake in the institutionalisation of these gestures. The “trigger warning” as expression of the ethical interpersonal relation between writer/reader or teacher/student has presented itself in a format that is beginning to be appropriated by a university bureaucracy that sees its potential for corporate risk management. That appropriation (not the appearance of or not of TWs) is what I think leads to the negative effects the “Trigger Warnings Are Flawed” authors elaborate (policing, deflecting of what should be institutional support to the classroom), no matter how many individuals are properly prevented from needless trauma by its institutionalisation. I’ve seen as few arguments for trigger warning policies that are grounded in a realistic analysis of institutional governmentality as I’ve seen arguments against them that are genuinely engaged in the political worlds from which TWs have emerged. As I wrote above, I don’t have a synoptic overview that could diagnose what the state of the discourse is. But I do know from experience that the policing of content works differently in an big-city research university than it does in a highly-religious teaching-oriented institution, and that the fusing of the ethical with the legal is always dangerous, however inevitable.

I don’t know what a trigger is, and I don’t like warnings generally. In my own teaching I would usually, but not consistently, aim to give content notifications for students at the start of my lectures on Gómez-Peña, for example, if there were going to be visuals that were not what students are likely to have encountered in their learning previously. I’ve no desire to put students through something they don’t want to experience. But unlike many academics commenting on the linked article, I don’t think my own individual reflex is sufficient to determine what those guides should be. In one of my first conference presentations during my brief period of work on colonial knowledge in 2004, I completely inappropriately showed images of Als and Allens’ collections of postcards of historical US lynchings. It was gratuitous and unnecessary, probably harmful for some. At the time I had no language to understand why, and luckily someone took the time to set me straight afterward, to remind me that I had no right to believe I had access to all of the stakes in what those images could do in that room. It’s one of those scenes of failure that has haunted me since, and made me realise how weak my own self-training in affect management has been. I’m a better teacher because of that failure, and realise more clearly now that I need other people’s eyes on my work, and I’ve tried to stop writing about things that are not mine to know, and to instead work with others on understanding what those historical ruptures are.

In a way, that very experience made me understand why a trigger warning is not a solution in the classroom: it still relies on an individual teacher taking responsibility for themselves, when the issues that require trigger warnings are collective problems, larger than any class. The smallest amount of support for minor experiments in collective teaching would, I think, better address the challenges of making the university a more ethically responsive place. But as anyone who has tried to implement such initiatives knows, the institutional forces that individualise answerability (as an infantilised version of responsibility) among both teachers and students are incredibly difficult to shift. Until we are able to shift them, we will have the debate on trigger warnings and other mechanisms to reconcile the institution to its ethical responsibilities, and we will need it.