Trigger Warnings

“This article makes reference to subject matters that some may find disturbing and/or triggering.”

In the beginning with that one simple sentence, you, the reader, have been made aware of any potential distress this article may cause and have been given the option to either continue or cease reading at your own will. It is a sign of respect that allows our society to maintain a balance between censorship and freedom of speech. It is not a matter of measuring maturity or even of political correctness, but rather about the practice of basic human sensitivity and understanding. When it comes to a student’s educational experience, it is about respecting their rights to feel safe in an academic environment and express autonomy over their course of study.

During a recent film screening for one of my classes I became uncomfortable when all of a sudden the anti-hero protagonist, a middle-aged man struggling to assert power over his own life, began chasing two teenage girls around his apartment and aggressively undressing them. Although there was no blood nor shrieking, I felt my heart rate begin to rise in anticipation of what might happen and in horror of what it all meant. Initially, because of my concern of being perceived as oversensitive and annoyingly nit-picky, I did not feel I should say anything. After a second and then a third similar experience in the same class, I finally decided to bring it up with a fellow classmate who revealed to me that she had similar feelings. I couldn’t help but wonder why we had not been warned in advance and if the professor was even aware of what seemed to have become a regular pattern of displays of sexual aggression in our screenings.

These issues were never addressed in our discussions or readings and they were unessential to the course curriculum, an introductory film class focused on the moving image. Having these scenes of sexual violence and exploitation (generally of women) presented with such casualness trivialized the real life concepts in ways that could potentially be very uncomfortable and even deeply disturbing to not just students or victims of sexual assault but any kind of viewer.

Though I felt compelled to formally express my concerns to the professor, I struggled for quite some time to decide whether I should do so anonymously. I wanted to make sure it was clear I was not ashamed of expressing my thoughts. As a young woman, and furthermore as a Scripps woman, however, I was worried that by attaching my name, and thus my gender, to my message, the issues surrounding trigger warnings and the media portrayals of sexual violence would be reduced to a “women’s issue” or even worse a “feminist issue:” one that in the minds of others applied to only a small group of people and was therefore of lesser significance. However, even if the majority of people who are affected by sexual violence are women, the importance of implementing systems that take into consideration individual sensitivity, such as trigger warnings, applies to all human beings.

Perhaps it is true, with today’s emphasis on political correctness, that someone can nowadays consider almost anything as offensive or triggering. We cannot (and should not) simply eliminate potentially disturbing material from existence or even from academic study. However, when showing such material, it should be preceded by a warning and, when necessary, offered in conjunction with an alternative assignment.

This applies specifically to Scripps’ recently revised Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities — “Histories of the Present: Violence.” While I would be interested in participating in the new Core program, I find it insensitive and inappropriate that a three-semester course centered on the subject of violence be required for an entire class of students. According to Julia Black ‘17, who is currently participating in the program, the majority of lectures thus far have begun with trigger warnings. These warnings, however, mean nothing if students are unable to refuse to participate and engage with the material.

A student’s grades and ability to participate in class should never be dependent on something that could potentially make them feel in any way uncomfortable. Even if there were no specific students who would be bothered by the subject matter, it should not be up to the others—especially people in positions of power over their educational experience—to make any assumptions. In the case of the Core program, a student could not reject the curriculum without drawing individual attention to themselves or their situations, including personal histories and issues that they should not be forced to share.

It is of vital importance that the classroom be maintained as a safe and productive learning environment. I would like to stress, however, the fact that I do not think explicit material should be eliminated from all courses of study. Violence, sexual aggression, and other subjects which merit trigger warnings can be portrayed in very productive ways to make a point and serve as the basis for extremely meaningful and important intellectual discussion. The problem arises when these sensitive topics are not treated with appropriate gravity or when those viewing them are denied the ability to consciously decide to engage with them. These issues are important to address not just for the sake of an individual student, but because they have potential to profoundly affect any student. If films and readings containing potentially disturbing content are going to be featured in a classroom setting it should be done so only with the understanding and consent of the students