What HBO Can Teach Colleges About 'Trigger Warnings'

The alerts can be appropriate in settings where one doesn't expect disturbing material. But why would a university classroom be one of those places?
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Pay television has "trigger warnings" of a sort. (HBO)

Collegians all over the country are calling for "trigger warnings," or "explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them," the N.Y. Times reports. The wisest activists favor narrowly drawn alerts intended to spare veterans and sexual assault victims from post-traumatic stress. Others want students warned about any content that might stoke anxiety or trauma. Critics of the "trigger warning" movement include academics who worry that requiring alerts in the classroom would chill speech and erode academic freedom. Others argue that the alerts are condescending, showy, or useless.

Strange as it may seem, reflecting on The Sopranos can help us here. The HBO series was as graphically violent as you'd expect of a mob drama: arms and legs are broken to extort protection money; gamblers who can't cover debts are brutally pummeled; a couple seasons in, I'd seen aggravated assaults, extreme domestic abuse, and more murderous gunshots to heads, chests, and guts than I can recall. Hence my surprise that Season 3, episode four was preceded by a warning I'd never seen. HBO uses standard Pay TV Content Descriptors. I'd been tipped off countless times about "adult content" and "graphic violence." What I hadn't known till just prior to that episode is that there's a special designation for rape:

After watching the episode, that brief warning seemed like a good idea. It isn't that the character's rape, awful as it was, is significantly "worse" than other traumas perpetrated in the series–in another episode, for example, a stripper is beaten, killed, and dumped in a ditch on a whim, a scene covered by generic "graphic violence." But every viewer of The Sopranos knew people would be beaten and killed. Rape, a distinct trauma, is absent from the show aside from one episode, and virtually every viewer was unprepared for the unexpected way it arose. I suspect the preemptive descriptor helped some number of viewers to avoid the scene, or more likely, to brace for it so as to be better prepared to watch.*

Notice that the general concept of "trigger warnings" is not, in fact, unique to feminist blogs or campus activists, even if they've cornered that particular buzz phrase. Mainstream, mass-entertainment networks find value in preemptive viewer alerts, even at the cost of tipping everyone off to a future plot development.

Weighing costs and benefits, that Sopranos episode strikes me as deft deployment of a "trigger warning." But the series illustrates the limits of such alerts too.

The descriptor "Adult Content" may be useful in pay TV as a whole (or may not be), but it had almost no value within the universe of people who watched or were passingly familiar with The Sopranos. Some episodes are more disturbingly violent than others–and individual sensitivities inevitably vary in a mass audience–yet the vague "adult content" label is appended to literally every episode. "Trigger warnings," by whatever name, are diminished when applied to extreme content that a typical person expects, or when used so ubiquitously that we reflexively ignore the meaningless tip because it isn't specific enough to be useful.

Unfortunately, college activists aren't just agitating for warnings to precede unusually graphic content that a reasonable person probably wouldn't have anticipated. 

They're going much farther:

Should students about to read “The Great Gatsby” be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart” — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label? 

The N.Y. Times story goes on to quote a draft guide on "trigger warnings" from Oberlin College:

Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.

The standard critique here is that a "trigger warning" policy written like that would impinge on academic freedom, chill speech, and infantalize 18, 19, 20, and 21-year-olds. I agree. But most confounding is the notion of students pushing to be warned about classroom material more tame than much of what they encounter in daily life. The Oberlin language is broad enough to cover a huge chunk of network TV shows, hip hop albums, standup comics and Hollywood films. If everything the Oberlin community considers privileged or oppressive were labeled with a "trigger warning" they'd need to be taped all over campus.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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