A lot of discussion has taken place recently about the merits of “trigger warnings” in academic environments. We can see that students, professors and administrators are all now part of an important conversation which deals with trauma and its role in the classroom. Some are fans of trigger warnings. Others, like President Elizabeth Garrett (to reporters at the Cornell Club), say that “there shouldn’t be any limits on the substance of freedom of speech at a university.”
And on a tangential note, any casual observer of the Cornellian social media scene will also see that a related division of opinions has happened on the oh-so-exciting “Overheard” group. The typical incident usually goes like this: A makes a joke in poor taste. B and C tell A why that joke is wrong and why A should not have said it. A, D and E defend A, saying B and C are too sensitive and, hey, aren’t we in America where A can say whatever A wants and wouldn’t you just say that everyone’s triggered by everything these days? The conversation inevitably turns to Hitler, and it eventually ends with the hand of God blocking out the sun and the seventh seal being opened.
Jokes aside, it’s obvious how these concerns about humor and trauma relate to one another. It’s also pretty apparent, to me at least, how improperly we mobilize the rhetoric of free speech and censorship to defend a lack of attention to trauma and power in the works of art taught in the classroom, or to the jokes we make — an art themselves — amongst one another everyday.
A trigger warning in this context functions as an alert. It lets a student or participant know that the class will deal with content potentially related to traumatic personal experiences. That way, if the student realizes that they have not prepared themselves mentally or emotionally for encounters with the remnant memories of their trauma, they might find some way to deal with this dilemma on their own terms, as opposed to any unexpected interactions with material that could recall past pains or sufferings.
We have responsibilities as students to question what we hear, even when it’s coming from students themselves. To do so, we have to divorce the trigger warning — as well as the criticisms of offensive or irreverent humor — from Orwellian laments about the First Amendment and liberal society. In terms of art, trigger warnings deal with a single person’s experience of a work of art which tries to grapple with trauma. Censorship, on the other hand, does not concern trauma. It is about art and ideology. Specifically it is about whether or not a work of art aligns with the opinions of those in power.
On August 17 2012, because of their performance of the song “Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away” at a Moscow Cathedral, three members of the punk group Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” condemned by the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church and sentenced to time in a Russian penal colony.
On August 25 2015, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison, after a trial which was, according to one observer, “redolent of Stalinist-era show trials of dissidents.” He was accused of planning terrorism.
These two events are instances of censorship. They are not someone policing jokes about spelling, or someone asking that we try to not make light of the dangers which have become so common in the lives of so many people. They are meant to punish and silence expressions of an aberrant ideology which the current political regime has deemed subversive or undesirable. If we want to look at that good ol’ Enlightenment-era notion of Truth that these “free-speech” advocates seem to adore so much, we have a problem here, right? We have the people in power neutering the dialogue and forbidding distasteful ideas with the threat of imprisonment, possibly for life. This is definitely a reprehensible thing to do, especially so when the consequences are that dire. Suppression of political dissent — simply because you don’t like what you’re hearing — turns into a genuine life-or-death issue in these circumstances. It goes beyond whether or not someone has the freedom to speak their mind or express themselves. It becomes a problem of how political powers can decide their own truth and maintain its sanctity. Essentially, it is an effort from those in power to safeguard the integrity of their ideas. In politics, that is often a matter of life or death.
To compare this action and its manifestations to that of the “trigger warning” is to have a gross misunderstanding of both. Student victims of trauma are not throwing their professors in prison for twenty years. They are not asking other students to stop making jokes about sexual assault because those jokes are politically rebellious or ideologically subversive. They are not blacklisting them or making them the subject of religious condemnations.
A trigger warning is not an issue of truth. It is an issue of respect and maturity. There are students in every university who know very well what the “real world” is like. Every day they quietly keep to themselves the cruelty and pain this world has shown them. I recommend that universities stop making it seem like these people serve a kind of liberal, anti-American regime. In a way, they are saying that students may make whatever demands they want. The university simply does not care about our own personal relationships with academics and arts. The politically and emotionally vital connection between a college-educated individual and ideas — something the Truth-loving university is supposed to cultivate in all of its students — is in big trouble.
Everyone, not just the lamenting administrators, will have a larger problem to deal with then, when we stop caring about what the truth means to every person and only care about what a single definition of the truth entails.