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I guess this is Jim Talks About Triggers and Content Warnings and Censorship and Stuff Week. Here are the previous two blog posts:

I want to talk next about the fear that trigger warnings could be abused, or that they could be used as a tactic to silence others and infringe on free speech.

As a general rule, almost anything can be taken to extremes and misused. Hypothetically, I could proclaim the color green was triggering me, and demand Michigan State University change their colors. At which point MSU would presumably, and rightfully, ignore me.

A fair number of the concerns I’ve seen raised were, like that example, hypothetical. “But what if…?”

It’s good to consider unintended consequences. We should also consider how likely those consequences are. How widespread. Have we seen incidents to suggest the potential harm outweighs the potential benefit? Are we more worried about hypothetical pain than actual pain?

Are those concerns worth thinking about? Sure. Are they justification to immediately cease and desist all Trigger Warnings and label anyone who protests an oversensitive whiner? Not so much.

Moving on from the hypothetical, what about all those real-world examples of people using “triggers” to attack others, and to shut down free speech?

Sexually Graphic Questions Appear in Cambridge Law Exam: One commenter pointed to this article, saying “Cambridge law students objected to an exam question on various forms of rape and sexual offenses.” But the article says only that students were shocked — not that they objected.

Sebastian Salek, a third-year from Clare College … told the Independent that questions on sexual offences are ‘always going to be quite graphic’, but that ‘this was on another level from previous years’.

He insisted that questions like this are ‘necessary’, however. “The criminal law isn’t pretty and law students have to be able to deal with the offences that were raised.”

The article says nothing about removing those questions. It doesn’t reference censorship, or students calling for changes to the exam. It simply notes that the questions were apparently more graphic than in prior years.

The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law: This article is by Jeannie Suk, and was referenced in that Atlantic piece about the “coddling” of American minds. The Atlantic article argued, “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” But what does Suk’s piece actually say?

Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering. Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.

You’ve got several things going on here. One is the request that professors let students know when they’re going to be discussing rape law, particularly when — like Suk — they’re going to be assigning students to argue hypothetical cases, to prosecute or defend accused rapists in “ambiguous” situations. I tend to agree that a content warning would be a Good Thing.

Should students be able to skip classes that deal with specific, potentially traumatic topics? Well, skipping class isn’t generally good for your education. On the other hand, neither is breaking down in class or afterward. Skipping the occasional class didn’t interfere with me getting my degree or making the honors lists. (Sorry, mom and dad!) This feels like an area where each student should make whatever choice is best for them. Isn’t that what we want students to be learning? To be independent and make their own informed choices? And keep in mind, trigger warnings don’t automatically mean students will skip that class. Often, it just gives students a warning so they can mentally and emotionally prepare themselves.

As for individual students allegedly asking teachers to remove questions about rape law from an exam, or to avoid using the word “violate” in class?

The key word here is asking. If professors are being forced to remove those questions, I think that’s a problem, yes. The legal system in this country is messed up enough already when it comes to rape; the last thing we need is to graduate a crop of students who are even more ignorant about how those laws work. But Suk doesn’t say she’s actually changed her curriculum, or been forced to do so.

She does say, “About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students.”

Yeah, that’s a problem. But is it a realistic fear? Is the problem students and others pressuring the professors, or is the problem professors giving in to baseless fears? We all know students will complain about stuff. But are universities actually disciplining or censoring professors for teaching rape law in law school? Suk’s article talks about fear, but is noticeably lacking in examples.

My Trigger-warning Disaster: This is another article linked to by a commenter as an example of trigger warnings being taken to ridiculous extremes. Rani Neutill writes about teaching a class about the evolution of sex in movies, and also filling in at the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services.

Before I screened [Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song], I gave a warning, indicating that it was one of the disturbing scenes to which Williams refers. The scene shows a young Sweetback … having sex with a 30-year old woman. She finds him irresistible and thus starts the hyper-sexual evolution of Sweetback — every woman on earth wants to fuck him, including a whole bunch of white women. This, of course, is statutory rape.  When the lights went on and the scene was over, two students left the room in tears. I was perplexed.

Wait, she was perplexed? She’s working in the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services, and she doesn’t understand how a scene of statutory rape might upset two of her students? The problem, in my reading, is that Neutill made the mistaken assumption that a trigger warning was a silver bullet, a cure-all that would ensure nobody got angry or upset or overwhelmed.

Neutill continues:

For the rest of the semester, I gave trigger warnings before every scene I screened. Every. Single. One. This wasn’t enough. A student came to me and asked that I start sending emails before class outlining exactly which disturbing scenes I would be showing so that I wouldn’t “out” survivors if they had to walk out of class when hearing what I was about to show. This took all the free form and off the cuff ability to teach. It stifled the teaching process … Nevertheless, I did it. (Emphasis added)

Why did she do it? Reading the article, it wasn’t because she feared complaints or disciplinary action. It was because students were upset, and she kept trying to “fix” that. Which isn’t how it works.

That's Not How This Works

Also, most teachers I’ve known have to plan their lessons, and showing film clips seems like something you’d have to set up in advance, so I’m not sure how letting students know in advance what they’d be looking at would stifle her freedom and process.

One final excerpt from her piece:

I don’t know about trigger warnings outside classes that deal with race, gender and sexuality, but I do know that if you promote trigger warnings in subjects that are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, you’re basically promoting a culture of extreme privilege, cause I’m pretty sure that the trans women who are being murdered weekly, the black men who are victims of police brutality daily, and the neighborhoods in America that are plagued by everyday violence, aren’t given any trigger warnings.

Shall we play a game of “Find the Messed-up Logical Fallacies in This Paragraph”?

My takeaway on this article isn’t that we’re promoting a culture of extreme privilege and runaway coddling of American minds. It’s that this professor did not know how to handle her class, and made mistakes as a teacher.

Northwestern’s Kipnis Cleared in Title IX Investigation: This is another article referenced (indirectly) by the Atlantic piece. Two Title IX complaints were filed against Laura Kipnis following an article she wrote about “sexual paranoia,” and a Tweet she posted. Of the examples I’ve discussed here, this is the first one with larger external consequences. Kipnis voiced opinions some people didn’t like, and two official complaints were made against her.

Kipnis’ article is available to subscribers only, but the opening sentence is…troubling:

You have to feel a little sorry these days for professors married to their former students. They used to be respectable citizens — leaders in their fields, department chairs, maybe even a dean or two — and now they’re abusers of power…

It sounds like Kipnis was attacking rules that prohibited romantic relationships between faculty and students, complaining that students are, “so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life…”

The Tweet in question said, “It’s a problem that ‘trauma’ is now deployed re any bad experience. And dating is not the same as rape!”

The problem? Kipnis was allegedly responding to a specific case on campus, an accusation of rape by a student against a professor. She denies this, but whether intentional or not, that was the context in which she was speaking out in support of those poor professors who only wanted to rape have sex with a student or two.

Does this justify a Title IX complaint? I honestly don’t know enough about Title IX law to say. I will note that Kipnis was cleared. I don’t want to minimize the anxiety and hassle of having to deal with those complaints, but she was not punished, nor was she censored by the university.


I’m sure there are examples of trigger warnings being abused and misused. But most of the examples being brought up, if you look into them, don’t suggest a widespread attack on free speech. The fear and the backlash against trigger/content warnings, etc., comes off as completely disproportionate to any real-world problems.

I’m not saying we ignore those real-world problems, or claiming no such problems exist. I’m just suggesting that many of the things being pointed to as “proof” we’re over-coddling minds and destroying academic freedom in the process don’t actually prove that at all.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 14th, 2016 07:36 pm (UTC)
FWIW, I skipped the *vast majority* of classes in college and am doing fine.

In fact, I'd argue that a key part of starting college is figuring out which classes you can skip and which you should. ;P
Apr. 14th, 2016 07:46 pm (UTC)
these are fabulous posts!

relatedly, lollardfish wrote about trigger warnings in an academic context, on his blog: http://www.thismess.net/2015/08/trigger-warnings-real-threat.html#uds-search-results - not sure whether you've seen those.
Apr. 14th, 2016 10:52 pm (UTC)
Yeeeah and here we're going to have to diverge, potentially a lot.

I believe these things are necessary. But I do not think they are without potential to cause harm. Do I think they ARE doing harm at present? Most likely in the majority of cases, no.


What pisses me off is this intense "it works, it's only right, if you're against it there's some sort of failing to understand". Or that we're against it.

Myself specifically I'm appalled by the number of times "good ideas" in application are easily made horrible. Inevitably made horrible. And even more the number of people each and EVERY time a new good idea comes out who say "but no, this is awesome". And then it goes to hell.

That? There? Is my concern about this. Because I see people weaving toward that. It's not THERE yet but constantly saying "we're not there yet" doesn't mean we're not moving. Or in that direction. So they're great, yes. They are useful and honestly not that difficult.

But high holy hell it scares the crap out of me. Because it's not about saying what we can say or do, it's talking about how to think. And that? That has all KINDS of potential that we should be keeping an eye on. Because yes, we need to think differently... but not just "because".

This issue hits home for me strongly as both a person who by dint of being gay spent a lot of time with people outright telling me that saying "I met a cute boy" was transgressive if not sexually explicit (no. really) and made everyone uncomfortable so please stop being so... yeah... And as a poz person I'm watching a lot of these same arguments made around HIV policies that ignore personal rights for community rights. Framed EXACTLY the same way : either you want to save lives or you think people should die. It works, it will work, there is no way that forcing people to be tested and then forcing them to be on medications and forcing them to tell every person they know ... could go wrong.

It's not that we're THERE. But we HAVE been. Countless times. And to hit the fullstop on a conversation about the potential problems "because it hasn't happened yet" fills me with anxiety. Because we KEEP doing this. Obviously.

They are necessary. But that is not the end of the conversation.

Edited at 2016-04-14 10:55 pm (UTC)
Apr. 14th, 2016 11:02 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure how much we've actually diverged here.

Hm ... if I had to restate some of what I'm thinking in terms of your comment, I'd say I agree with you that yes, we should be keeping an eye on the potential. Like I said, I do think the hypothetical possibilities are worth thinking about. And if there are examples of triggers, warnings, etc. being used in damaging and damning ways, then yeah, we need to push back on that.

What irks me is the argument not that "This is something we need to keep an eye on," but "This problem is already here and destroying free speech and okay I can't actually point to an example of trigger-warning-censorships but it's TOTALLY censoring people" and so on and so forth.

Does that make sense?

"Because it's not about saying what we can say or do, it's talking about how to think."

Can you expand on that a bit, please? I'm not sure I'm following, and I want to understand.
Apr. 14th, 2016 11:16 pm (UTC)
First : absolutely agree. If people are saying the English aren't just coming, they're here... yeah. We agree.

Second: think.

We are effecting how people think about subjects. We're asking people to think differently about other people's experiences. We're asking them to consider perspectives and life experiences other than their own and consider impact of statements/writing/movies/media on people with those experiences.

It's not "don't ever use that word" as much as "consider the impact of that word and warn others before using it". That's a change in how people think, fundamentally. It's a good thing. Again, when done in moderation and for a given value of well.

Censorship and the flailing would have you believe this is about not saying The Thing. It's not. It's about thinking about The Thing and how it might effect others. How that gets expressed is often the focus of things but really... we're hoping to shift people's thinking to include more than their own experiences/tolerances. (shrug) To me it's a natural portion of the evolution of a culture and society as a whole : we don't think about the world the way we used to. At some point some one surely said "ok, we need to face this differently" and people probably freaked about it. "You can't tell me what to believe, it's flat and you're wrong and you're oppressing me....when you show me pictures of Earth from space..."

We ask that cultural mores shift with the culture. Chicken and egg. So for me, god I know this is taking forever - sorry, we change our culture by changing our thinking and our thinking changes because of our culture. This is a GOOD thing. With horrible possibilities. To change ... for the sake of changing... yeah. No.

But then you knew I think sideways on things.

And I said potentially a lot. I genuinely don't know, so that's my ass-covering. ;)

Edited at 2016-04-14 11:20 pm (UTC)
Apr. 21st, 2016 03:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks - that makes sense, I think.

After trying and floundering several times to delve more into the thoughts vs. behaviors, I'm ending up with a thought about white folks demanding to know why they can't say the n-word.

To which I generally have a couple of answers. First of all, you can say it -- but others are also allowed to tell you what they think of you saying it. Second, and more relevant, it's not about whether or not you can say it -- it's about why you want to say it. What's the thinking that makes you want to choose to use that term?
Apr. 14th, 2016 11:31 pm (UTC)
Here's one thing that popped up in my Facebook feed...
...that I would consider to be a misuse/misapplication of triggering:


I write fanfiction. I have no problem putting warnings on my content. If anything, I overwarn. But if the substance of this article is true, I do consider an example of Taken Too Far.
Apr. 15th, 2016 12:06 am (UTC)
Re: Here's one thing that popped up in my Facebook feed...
Okay, the article uses the word "triggering," but I'm not seeing it in the actual complaints.

That said...yeah, the situation feels like potentially going too far with the safety/respect policy.

Pulling up different articles, I see her "offense" described as "raising her hand," "indicating disagreement," and "inappropriate hand gestures." I'm guessing we're not talking about flipping someone off, because if so, that probably would have been spelled out.

It also says she went so far as to "shake her head disapprovingly," which...um...okay, yeah.

Following the link to the Reason article, it sounds like students voted 33 to 18 to *not* kick her out or expel her for this "violation" of policy, and that other students are pushing to rewrite the policy.

Wilson herself says, "I completely understand the importance of our safe space policy, and will defend it to the ground...but I did not think that was fair, and had it gone further I would have either left or argued against it."

My takeaway is that yeah, in this case the policy was abused. I suspect this quote from the Huffington Post write-up gets close to the heart of things:

"So for someone to have abused the very legitimate purpose of safe space rules to get at someone they politically disagreed with was pretty low."

My sense is that the policy probably needs to be rewritten. But that it wasn't so much a case of "coddling" or overprotecting students so much as using a policy that wasn't written well in order to attack a political "enemy." Particularly since this all happened in the context of an Israel/Palestine debate.

Very long-winded response, I know. Hopefully it makes sense?

Edited at 2016-04-15 12:12 am (UTC)
Apr. 15th, 2016 04:12 am (UTC)
Re: Here's one thing that popped up in my Facebook feed...
The reason she was targeted with the safe space rules is because she was speaking in favour of Israel. other people had done the same thing in the meeting and had not been censured.

It was political silencing, and censorship.
Apr. 15th, 2016 12:17 am (UTC)
Re: Here's one thing that popped up in my Facebook feed...
The headline is wrong. She raised both her arms above her head in disagreement. She even admits she did that in another article. To a survivor of domestic abuse that can be a trigger, a prelude to being hit again. There's a reason that this meeting's safe space policy bans that type of gesture. I find it quite aggressive given my background.
Apr. 15th, 2016 07:06 am (UTC)
Has anyone ever asked mental health professionals if trigger warnings and safe spaces is the right approach?

Because we don't make these accommodations for people with ptsd, or phobias. And a phobic is just as terrified of their trigger as a sexual assault victim.

You can't actually make the world safe from triggering one of my phobias. My treatment has been about building resilience, mastering panic attacks and not about a safe space. People are entitled to reasonable accommodations, but not more than that. And sometimes a course will never be safe enough. A dental phobic has no business on a dentistry course if they have panic attacks. Sexual offences are a key part of the law syllabus. If you can't deal with that, then you can't do law. Because the accommodation of safe space is to destroy the integrity of the curriculum.
Apr. 15th, 2016 03:12 pm (UTC)
"Has anyone ever asked mental health professionals if trigger warnings and safe spaces is the right approach?"


Heck, there are mental health professionals weighing in on this conversation.

"You can't actually make the world safe from triggering one of my phobias."

Nobody's claiming otherwise. The point isn't to make the world safe. It's to provide warnings when possible, and allow people to make better-informed decisions. Nobody's arguing trigger warnings are a cure-all, or that it's possible to make the world completely safe.
Apr. 17th, 2016 03:29 pm (UTC)
Could you please show me where the word "trigger" is used in that article?
Apr. 16th, 2016 11:00 pm (UTC)
You can't actually make the world safe from triggering one of my phobias.

Then it's a good thing that's not what trigger warnings and safe spaces are supposed to do, isn't it?

(I see your strawman and raise you mockery.)
Apr. 17th, 2016 07:25 am (UTC)
And I counter your response with a dismissive eyebrow

It's not a strawman. It's a counter argument which rejects your premises.

If airy fairy virtue signalling makes you feel you've made the world a better place I'm sure that's very nice for you but it doesn't actually make the world a better place, and students are in for a rude awakening when they leave for the world of work
Apr. 17th, 2016 03:26 pm (UTC)
"If airy fairy virtue signalling..."

See previous comment, and please stop with the mockery and condescension.
Apr. 17th, 2016 03:25 pm (UTC)
Let's not start throwing mockery at one another, please.
Apr. 15th, 2016 11:32 am (UTC)
The other thought that occurs to me. What happens when the Right gets involved in this?

And they start demanding 'Trigger Warnings' on everything that might offend them? So any media with a same sex relationship must carry a trigger warning, or anything remotely Trans must carry a sign saying 'Trigger warning!'

Any religious topic that is not fundementalist Christian should carry a trigger warning that it might offend fundie Christians...

A superhero movie with a lead female character carrying a trigger warning for sensitive whinging-man-babies.

A novel with androgynous sci-fi characters needing to set out a trigger warning on the cover so that no puppies need be upset...

In a sense I'm quite surprised the Right hasn't started down this path already?
Apr. 16th, 2016 05:42 pm (UTC)
Late to this post, but they already sort of have. This article doesn't actually mention triggers, but I could see similar situations in the future where trigger warnings are mentioned. http://www.lgbtqnation.com/2015/08/duke-students-reject-celebrated-book-because-of-gay-themes/

What you mention is one of my biggest concerns about trigger warnings, too.
Apr. 16th, 2016 08:39 pm (UTC)
And I fear they will do it quite vengefully once it catches on. I mean, more vengefully than your example is already.

And they'll be able to believe quite easily, what are we complaining about, they're just doing what our side wanted.
Apr. 17th, 2016 08:09 pm (UTC)
An important difference here is that being triggered is vitally distinct from being upset.

You want a warning for something that will turn you into a crying mess and leave you jumping at shadows for days at a time? That is a trigger. Sure thing!

You want a warning for something that will make you consider the fact that people unlike you exist, which makes you uncomfortable? That's bullshit. Not gonna happen.

As long as people are correctly educated about the difference*, I don't see this happening on a wide scale.

* For the full experience, imagine me laughing helplessly while typing that, and slowly dissolving into tears.
Apr. 18th, 2016 11:26 am (UTC)
Aye, I totally agree. So long as people are correctly educated about the difference, and don't just use it as a tool to silence those they disagree with.

But, yes. I share your helpless laughter.
Apr. 16th, 2016 11:07 pm (UTC)
Re Kipnis, I don't have a problem with a professor dating, having sex with, or marrying a former student. The problem arises when the professor is fraternizing (to borrow the military term) with a current student, advisee, or someone else over whom they have authority/power. It's an abuse-of-authority issue, and not a specifically-gendered one.

I had a flaming crush on my boss at one job when I was in my 20s. But I wouldn't have gone out with him if he'd asked me (which he didn't, because he was both smart and decent). After he was no longer my boss, we did date a few times.
Apr. 18th, 2016 05:56 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly. Once the student has graduated, I don't care what you do. If you're fooling around with students while they're still in school, then there's a problem.
Apr. 18th, 2016 07:31 pm (UTC)
I can think of two cases in my city where teachers who had had affairs with current students turned out to have previously married a former student. In each case the marriage looked defensible, but in hindsight I couldn't help side-eyeing a bit.
Apr. 18th, 2016 10:14 pm (UTC)
The math teacher/football coach at my HS got fired for sleeping with a student. Come to find out, he'd married a former student (who was still in school when they married) from a previous job and had gotten another student pregnant at that school.

Apr. 18th, 2016 10:52 pm (UTC)
In one case I'm thinking of the teacher had been in her first year, straight out of college, when her student was a senior, and she didn't marry him until he was out of college. The other was a guy in his twenties who taught a college art class for a year and subsequently married one of his students from that class, who had graduated. So in both cases not a big age gap, former students of age and graduated before marriage, etc. If that had been the end of it and everything else about their lives looked perfectly honorable, the green flags would have way outnumbered the one red flag.
Apr. 18th, 2016 05:53 pm (UTC)
In one of my classes on military history, we were asked to bring in film clips. Someone brought in the gassing scene from Schindler's List. I'd never seen the movie, but as soon as the clip started to play and I realized what I was seeing, I freaked out. I plugged my ears and scooted out of the room, then spent ten minutes sitting on the floor outside. shaking.

I'm Jewish. I lost relatives in the camps. That triggered the heck out of me. I would really have appreciated a warning so I could have left before that came on. I don't blame anyone, but a warning would have saved me a serious panic.
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )


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