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.*