November 10, 2015

LIBERALLY BLONDE | Movie Ratings and Trigger Warnings

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The familiar green screen and white lettering precede each movie trailer. Before the main attraction can scroll across the screen, the designated rating and following justification first greet the audience. While many viewers choose to ignore the warning, few question its significance. And this makes sense; a second-long movie rating is hardly an inconvenience, yet it presents conscientious viewers with the opportunity to avoid potentially disturbing or inappropriate content. The movie rating is considerate and unobtrusive, constructive and nondescript.

However, while little controversy exists concerning movie ratings, there is considerable debate over the merits of applying a similar caution known as a trigger warning in higher education. A trigger warning is defined as a statement at the beginning of a presentation alerting the student that the following lesson may contain conceivably distressing information. Such trigger warnings are written by professors on syllabi or verbally noted as quick asides before discussion. The purpose of including trigger warnings, like movie ratings, is not to discourage participation or viewing; rather it is to prepare the intended audience for engaging with sensitive subject material. The purpose of trigger warnings is not to enable a “swaddled generation,” but to empower students to unwrap precarious yet poignant topics.

Critics of trigger warnings believe including cautions limits academic freedom. They argue that students will manipulate trigger warnings to avoid the intellectually challenging atmosphere college is intended to provide. Those opposing trigger warnings state college students ought to grapple with challenging viewpoints and emotional topics in order to learn and to grow. On this note, I agree. My peers and I should rationally examine and evaluate various questions in order to become knowledgeable and responsible citizens of the world. However, this point only furthers the argument for trigger warnings.

Evidence suggests that a vast number of students of higher education are affected by traumatic experiences. Whether it be sexual assault or the loss of a relative, it is likely that at any given time, a survivor of severe mental or physical pain is in the classroom. For these students, a triggered flashback is all encompassing and all consuming. In her article “Why I Use Trigger Warnings,” Professor Kate Manne compares a flashback to the “experience of intense nausea…You can no more reason your way out of it than you reasoned your way into it.” Thus, the rationale for trigger warnings is to prevent or prepare students for such intense emotions or physical responses.

In issuing trigger warnings, professors maximize all students’ opportunity to access and analyze information without being eclipsed from discussion. Trigger warnings are not coddling students; rather, they are protecting survivors who may have adverse reactions to certain material through no fault of their own. Trigger warnings are not infringing on academic freedom; rather, they expand it by ensuring equal access to content and rational comprehension. Trigger warnings are not hindering education; rather, they facilitate the goal of higher education: to nurture and promote learning in a safe yet challenging environment.

Nonetheless, the questions remain of where and when to issue trigger warnings. Though I have no background in psychology, it seems a quick aside or note on the syllabus ought to be sufficient. Such a practice, like a movie rating, is informative without detracting from the main picture. A more difficult query is where to draw the line in the sand. It is the responsibility of both the student and teacher to communicate and apply professional discretion in order to decide what content warrants a trigger warning. Open discourse, trauma analysis and human acumen will ensure trigger warnings are not injudiciously applied in order to limit canons of literature or silence unpopular opinions (such as the one presented here).

A trigger warning is higher education’s version of a movie rating. The two are polite yet inconspicuous, admonishing without alienating. Just as we accept the green screen announcing the movie rating, we ought to embrace the black and white print of a trigger warning.

Kayleigh Rubin is a freshman PAM major in the College of Human Ecology. Kayleigh is an American Ninja Warrior fanatic, ice cream addict and literature enthusiast. Liberally Blonde appears on Tuesdays this semester. She can be reached at kbr44@cornell.edu.

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