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April 17, 2023

On Trigger Warnings and Watching Movies

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Trigger Warning: This article contains references to Sexual Violence

Just last week, Cornell University made the national news for the second time this academic school year after President Martha Pollack rejected a student assembly proposal to mandate trigger warnings in classes, citing academic freedom. Unsurprisingly, the decision was hailed as a victory by all the various actors at Cornell, including the conservative Cornell Review, and various professors. Yet, as a person who’s experienced life and academia both with and without trigger warnings, I can’t help but feel frustrated by this erroneous heralding of academic freedom. Disingenuous, reactionary fear mongering aside, trigger warnings seem to me a perfectly common-sense, and non-controversial, addition to contemporary life. If I’ve found the time to include them in something as informal as watching a movie, I can’t help but feel that professors (who hold in their hands the academic success of countless students) could be asked to incorporate them into their classes. For those who don’t seem to understand their ease or importance, I’ve decided to write a bit about my experience with them, and why I can’t help but feel concerned at their rejection here at Cornell.

I’m a cinephile. I watch a whole lot of movies with a whole lot of intense content, I show them to a diversity of people and I’m a huge fan of trigger warnings. Just because I watch anything and everything doesn’t mean I’d expect everyone to be comfortable watching a graphic decapitation or violent rape scene on their Thursday night. At the very least, just as it’s nice to know whether a movie is 90 minutes or three hours long, it can be important to know if a film contains a shot that’s going to physically hurt to watch. Adding the fact that those moments, upsetting to the normal viewer, may mirror the subject of someone’s therapy, seeking an alternative or skipping a scene doesn’t seem that crazy. It’s obviously non-ideal; it would be nice if I could show every movie I like to any of my friends with no reservations, but I want that because I want my friends to enjoy the movie. Films are incredibly powerful, and they can do a lot of things, but they can’t be expected to undo trauma. Asking someone to watch a film that taps into that trauma, in the hope that the difficult material will recontextualize the way they see their experience, risks just as much that it’ll set them back in grappling with said experience. Maybe it’s a choice that’s reasonable for some people. But it’s not mine to make, nor is it a professor’s to hang over their students as a prerequisite to academic success. 

Like most, I’ve had my fair share of struggles with mental health, even if it isn’t an active and persisting issue for me right now (knock on wood). I can at once acknowledge that I’m going to engage with any material, regardless of trigger warnings, and recognize that there were points in my life when engaging with something triggering rendered me unable to function in an academic setting. Knowing people for whom this situation remains true, I think that asking them to take a mental health hit which may very well carry over to their other classes just so that a professor can feel that their lesson is being fully transmitted to each and every student — spoiler alert: It never is and never has been —  seems like an unreasonable value proposition. Few people are broadly against engaging with difficult material, but interpreting vulnerability with intense content as an academic failure is simply unfair and betrays a mindset that perpetuates mental health issues on campus at large. If the administration were serious about wanting students to engage with difficult content, they’d put in an effort to make people comfortable with the prospect by incorporating trigger warnings, allowing students to confront triggers on their own terms, and more broadly facing a campus mental health issue so severe that the first association any non-Cornellian has with our school is suicide bridges. 

For those who say that this presents too broad an issue to tackle, that professors might not know what could trigger students, I point them to the ways film fans have dealt with the issue. Doesthedogdie.com is a database of user submitted answers to an exhaustive list of questions for thousands of movies, books and TV shows. I can go on the site with a question and feel confident that it’s going to be answered, and even if I see a warning that might be silly to me, I hardly feel gutted knowing that the information may prove useful to someone else. A professor who knows their curriculum well should be able to fill out a doesthedogdie.com-style form in half an hour, maybe a bit more if they want to provide specific details. In fact, professors of literature or film can literally use doesthedogdie.com as a tool for any assigned materials. 

All told, trigger warnings aren’t that hard. They aren’t a fatal blow to academic freedom, unless we define academic freedom as an abstract right to force students to confront viscerally unpleasant information with little emotional response or, perhaps more accurately, as the perpetuation of an institution built and upheld by a privileged ruling class and exclusionary to any who may have suffered at their hands. The Cornell code has plenty of bylaws informing when professors can assign work or hold classes or what accommodations they have to make, none of which are argued to infringe academic freedom, and all of which exist because professors, good and bad, aren’t always trusted or expected to focus on their students’ well being. Trigger warnings are a simple, common sense solution to the good problem of having a student body filled with individuals who have had a diversity of experiences, each trying their best to emerge from Cornell better off with regards to both education and mental health. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that the administration is resistant to incorporating them, but if President Pollack would like to better understand their importance, I have a hell of a lot of movies that I can recommend to her. 

Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].