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?

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.

Kevin Drum expresses puzzlement. "What I don't get is what anyone thinks the point of this is," he writes. "You're never going to have trigger warnings in ordinary life, right? So even if universities started adopting broad trigger policies, it would accomplish nothing except to semi-protect sensitive students for a few more years of their lives, instead of teaching them how to deal with upsetting material."

Here's my theory.

These college activists actually accept the widely held notion that whether a warning is necessary should depend partly on the material one expects to encounter in a given setting. It's just that they've been trained by a subset of professors, administrators, and classmates to believe that the classroom is or ought to be a "safe space;" that inside it, no one should feel upset, anxious or uncomfortable.

If I'm correct, a clarification is emphatically needed, not on the syllabi of individual classes, but during the registration period at the beginning of each term.

"The world is rife with racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression," the Oberlin course catalog might say. "Students taking courses in the humanities and social sciences should expect to grapple regularly with those phenomena and other fraught, uncomfortable subjects besides, in both course materials and classroom discussions with people who don't share their values, judgments, or assumptions."

That this doesn't go without saying is an indictment of leading universities. As a UC Santa Barbara professor put it: “Any student can request some sort of individual accommodation, but... the presumption... that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.”​ How to study slavery, or the Rwandan genocide, or the Communist purges, or the Holocaust, or the Crucifixion, or the prose of Toni Morrison or James Joyce, or the speeches of MLK, or the debate that surrounds abortion, or psychological experiments about the human willingness to take orders, without risking trauma?

Surely college students should know what's coming when they set out to plumb human civilization. A huge part of it is a horror show. To spare us upset would require morphine.

Perhaps narrow policies to help sexual assault victims or combat veterans could be useful (I have not yet seen hard evidence demonstrating as much, but anecdotes aren't nothing). And there are, of course, rare instances when professors should tip students off to specific, unusually extreme content that no one would've expected given the context. But I suspect that even in those unusual cases, where the concept behind "trigger warnings" is likely useful, invoking the phrase itself is much less so, because it has become jargon. To eschew the phrase, to be specific, is to force clarity of thought and convey useful meaning.

The alternative, the future before us if the most sweeping plans for "trigger warnings" become reality, is a kind of arms race, where different groups of students demand that their highly particular, politicized sensitivities are as deserving of a trigger warning as any other. Everyone from anarchists to college Republicans will join in. Kids will feel trauma when their trauma isn't recognized as trauma. "Trigger warnings" will be as common and useless as "adult content" warnings on HBO.

Everyone will be worse off.


*On "trigger warnings," sentiments like the following seem to be common: "I don't often skip a post because of a warning, but it gives me a moment to steady myself before reading. For me, it's being exposed to a trigger unexpectedly that causes anxiety. If I know it's coming, I'm usually okay. As for this blog, I come here expecting to read about rape and other triggering topics, so i'm already prepared." (That is from the generally interesting comments thread of an old Amanda Hess post.)