Debates over the use and value of trigger warnings flare up periodically, with the most recent iteration centering on their arrival within academic contexts. As reported by The New Republic, Oberlin College recently issued guidelines advising faculty members to avoid potentially triggering material in classes (then withdrew them for revision in response to faculty displeasure); and in February, the Student Senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution calling for mandatory trigger warnings. Responses to these developments, and to what seems to be a growing imperative for educators to adopt trigger warnings, have been polarized.
What’s a trigger warning? A kind of label designed to give readers a heads-up about content that may provoke, for example, trauma-related flashbacks, dissociation, or the urge to self-harm. (For more info, see this entry at the GeekFeminism Wiki.) In certain spaces, particularly the feminist blogosphere and queer Tumblr, trigger warnings are seen as a common courtesy, if not an expectation, with different people/communities mobilizing them in different ways. Elsewhere, and sometimes within these same communities, trigger warnings have been the subject of criticism, if not open ridicule; many critics have called attention to the limitations of trigger warnings (commonly abbreviated TWs) as a harm reduction tool, as well as the potential for TWs to be invoked as a tool of censorship.
As the debate on trigger warnings in the academy rages across the internet, I wondered how it’s taking shape in the creative writing classroom—so I invited six writers/artists and educators to participate in a roundtable conversation via email. Over a period of about a week, our discussion of trigger warnings in the classroom expanded to confront issues related to censorship, accessibility, and generational tensions. The conversation was broad ranging and quite moving; sometimes polarized and always provocative. This is the first of three parts. –Megan Milks
CAConrad is the author of six books including ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness (Wave Books, 2014), A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON (WAVE Books, 2012) and The Book of Frank (WAVE Books, 2010). A 2014 Lannan Fellow, a 2013 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2011 Pew Fellow, he also conducts workshops on (Soma)tic poetry and Ecopoetics. Visit him online at http://CAConrad.blogspot.com.
Jos Charles is a white genderqueer writer and founding-editor at THEM – a trans* literary journal. They have poetry published (and/or have publications forthcoming) with BLOOM, Denver Quarterly, Radioactive Moat, Metazen, as well as variously online. Jos is a founder and co-managing editor of Sol&Res. Their writing has also been featured on Huffington Post, BitchMedia, HTMLGIANT, Fanzine, The Quietus, interviews with GLAAD, and other pieces forthcoming.
Andrea Lawlor, a recent graduate of UMass Amherst’s MFA program, teaches writing at Mount Holyoke College, edits fiction for Fence, and has been awarded fellowships by Lambda Literary and Radar Labs. Lawlor’s writing has appeared in Mutha, The Millions, jubilat, The Brooklyn Rail, Faggot Dinosaur, OCHO 31, MiPOesias, and Encyclopedia, Vol. II.
Sarah Schulman’s most recent books are The Gentrification Of The Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (University of California Press) and Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (Duke University Press).
Aishah Shahidah Simmons is an award-winning Black feminist lesbian documentary filmmaker, writer, international lecturer, and activist. She is an Associate Editor of the online publication The Feminist Wire. An incest and rape survivor, she produced, wrote, and directed the internationally acclaimed Ford Foundation-funded documentary film NO! The Rape Documentary. Most recently, she authored the foreword to the anthology Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence (Lisa Factora-Borchers, editor, AK Press 2014). Presently, she teaches under/graduate courses in Women’s Studies and LGBT Studies at Temple University.
Anna Joy Springer is a prose writer and visual artist who makes grotesques – creating hybrid texts that combine sacred and profane elements to evoke intensely embodied conceptual-emotional experiences in readers. Formerly a singer in the Bay Area bands, Blatz, The Gr’ups, and Cypher in the Snow, Anna Joy has toured the United States and Europe being a wild feminist punk performer, and she has also toured with the all-women spoken word extravaganza, Sister Spit. She is author of the illustrated novella The Birdwisher (Birds of Lace) and The Vicious Red Relic, Love (Jaded Ibis). She now teaches writing at UC San Diego.
MEGAN MILKS: Let’s start with the creative writing classroom. Do you provide warnings on your syllabi to alert students to potentially triggering material? Do you have a policy that asks students to include trigger warnings on their own work when it contains potentially triggering material? And if so, what kinds of trigger warnings?
SARAH SCHULMAN: I have an overt policy of no censorship of any kind in my writing classes. Students are free to write whatever they must, and others are free to respond however they need to. If a student wants to respond by walking out of the room, so be it. But I encourage everyone to listen, think and understand their own reactions so that they can express them articulately.
Being “triggered” means being reminded of a past violation or unresolved trauma in a way that provokes a reaction to the past, in the present. The responsibility of each person is to learn how to differentiate between the past and the present so that they are not blaming, scapegoating or attacking people today for pain that they have not caused but was inflicted by others long gone. The community around the reactive, triggered person must intervene, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them, to help them be aware. The worst, most detrimental thing a friend or family can do with a triggered person is to feed the runaway train, i.e., re-enforce the delusion that they are being violated when the triggeredness is by definition an over-reaction.
The goal is for the triggered person to learn how to be aware of their own over-reaction. The goal is to learn how to say “I feel out of control” instead of acting out to destroy someone who doesn’t deserve to be treated that way.
CACONRAD: Sarah it’s extremely compassionate the way you approach this, which is interesting because the argument of course is that we lack compassion when not providing the warning. There’s a professor who feels similarly to you. She invited me to teach a class at her university in Baltimore and I enthusiastically said YES because discussing poetry is one of my favorite things to do. The students asked me to read some of my own work, and I did, and within five minutes one student was hyperventilating and screamed and ran out of the room. The professor said, “It’s okay, she’s strong, it’s going to be just fine.” The student came back in later and I decided to start a conversation with the class about why and how poetry is so powerful. It turns out this student is deeply religious and I was offending their religious views, which is a little different.
But it’s not that different really. When Eileen Myles’s book SORRY, TREE came out I ran into an old friend while reading it in the park. I showed her the poem “UNNAMED NEW YORK” where Myles says:
to hit god
it hit his mother
I speak for
In my excitement to share this amazing new book I had forgotten that my friend is catholic and she yelled at me, demanding an apology. It was a challenge this crisis because I LOVE my friends, and I said, “I love you but I can’t apologize.” It’s against every cell in my body to apologize for poems. We’re asked to apologize for too many things in this world as it is. The trigger warning for me in front of a class or at the microphone is an apology, “I’m sorry if my poems upset you.” I DO have compassion for people who are suffering, but in the way you put it Sarah. And besides, if Eileen Myles isn’t going to apologize for Eileen Myles, who am I to do so?
ANDREA LAWLOR: I agree with you, Conrad! I don’t want poets to apologize for poems. But I also think there’s an important distinction to be made between being offended and being triggered.
So here’s my deal: I’ve never required student writers to use trigger warnings, but I’ve kept the space open for them to respect the requests of their classmates. I’ve had a number of students ask me over the last few years, in creative writing classes, if we could use trigger warnings. These have mostly been UMass Amherst undergrads, but also some students from Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, and Mount Holyoke—demographically various. The first time a student asked for this was in the Experimental Queer Writing class I co-taught at UMass, but I’ve also encountered the request at UMass in the intro level Creative Writing class, and once again, at Amherst College, where I ran a Trans*/Queer Writing Group. The first time, the request took me by surprise; since then, I’ve brought the idea up myself to students, as a question: do we want to talk about this? Some students didn’t know what trigger warnings (or triggers, for that matter) were, but a sizable number were very excited to have the conversation, something they reported had been mocked by other creative writing professors. I’m generally open to students’ requests, as many of my best teaching moments have come from them—the student in a comp class, for instance, who suggested we sit in silence for five minutes at the start of each class. The other undergrads, in my experience, are usually game, so why would I want to crush the spirit of students who want to help create the structures of their own education?
I’ve tried using trigger warnings in the CW classroom workshop setting a few times. Each time, we’ve had an excellent discussion about the power and purpose of writing, about intention, and about the politics of language. The last time I worked with students who wanted to use trigger warnings, in the Trans*/Queer Writing Group (which was not-for-credit, by the way), one of my clever students created an anonymous collaborative document on the web (http://collabedit.com), so people could anonymously list things for which they wanted warning. We compiled our list, which was fairly short and comprised of pretty common categories (sexual violence, suicide, cutting, etc), and people mostly did offer warnings when they included representations of these subjects in their pieces—which they did! including self-identified survivors, who sometimes wrote pieces which very graphically depicted some of the things on the trigger list. I’m interested in the way the use of trigger warnings in a workshop might allow student writers to write in MORE compelling, more honest, more powerful ways about our world, which includes trauma.
Some survivors of trauma appreciate advance notice of material which they may not want to read on the bus, say, or when they’ve just had a rough day—this isn’t a way to blame others for their experience or avoid doing work. I see students using trigger warnings as a way to manage their healing processes. I don’t see the harm in this. I absolutely do not think it’s my place to tell ANY survivors how to heal. I do think, as a teacher, it’s part of my job to hold the space of the classroom for everybody, to be responsive, to let students lead and experiment as they see fit.
Many people throw the word “trigger” around fairly cavalierly these days, but that doesn’t mean the concept itself is meaningless. On the contrary, we live in (and help make?) a culture which seeks in every way to undermine survivors of trauma, who so often are speaking pretty uncomfortable truths to power. How can we help make a new culture, which actually listens to those affected by toxic heteropatriarchy, racism, capitalism—a culture which makes possible healing and witness and powerful art?
JOS CHARLES: There’s already a lot of moralizing and rhetoric surrounding this discussion. Who is the poet, what can the poet do, what is poetry for, and so on. Despite identifying as a poet, all of this strikes me as too abstract, academic, and philosophic, that is, refuses to account for my lived reality.
The fact is rape victims, people with PTSD, autism, social anxiety, and so on, exist. As a rape victim, someone with PTSD, someone with severe recurrent social anxiety and panic ‘disorder,’ I exist. These are not external, conditional, or circumstantial to my experience of the world. I am also a poet. Poets exist. Lots of poets exist. Most are neurotypical and oblivious to their privilege as neurotypical writers. As such many poets write problematic poems about rape, mental health, and other topics that can induce panic, anxiety, flashbacks, and so on, in their audience. Regardless of all of this ‘is the poet responsible to the audience’ undercurrent, there exist poets who write fucked up shit that triggers–using trigger in this sense of induces material violence on the body of the listener–and poets who write not fucked up shit that triggers.
I for one think triggers are nothing more than a start, a band aid. It in no way holds the poet responsible for writing fucked up shit. It makes no distinction between a poet detailing racial violence and a racist poet. All a trigger accomplishes is letting the audience know if anyone is prone to having violence enacted onto their body–physically, materially–by words, that those words may be used. This allows them a chance to step out, take medication, or however they feel like reacting. Maybe they’ll miss out on something that wouldn’t have triggered something but been, in fact, restorative. That sucks. It seems a small risk to me though to miss out on one poem versus reliving a traumatic experience, having a public panic attack, at worst mocked and at best fetishized as victim, be unable to drive for hours, take medication (when I can afford medication), find people who can care for me, etc.
This is the reality that exists. So the question is, how can we account for the realities of the audience without curbing the poet’s language. Trigger warnings are *a solution*, one that I think is nice, as it allows the poet free range to write whatever they want, however they want, without ‘spoiling’ the content of the poem, while letting listeners know common details that could induce violence on certain marginalized bodies of the audience.
I don’t think trigger warnings should be demanded / required. I demand consent though.
Here are some casual ways of saying a trigger warning: “I wrote this poem in October of blah blah blah and it details when I was raped”; “this poem contains images of racial violence”; or even at the beginning of the reading “some of the poems that follow contain images of ableist violence and trans misogyny; I don’t apologize for that, it’s a terrible world.” As an audience I would never perceive any of these as apologies, ruining the ‘surprise’ of a poem, etc. It would simply tell me if I am in a space where certain phrases or ideas would cause visceral harm to my body, that I should leave. If an author can’t take the time or courtesy to do that, that’s their decision, I don’t think people should police that, but I distrust that immensely.
CACONRAD: Neurotypical or not, I’m talking about poets. In A NEW BOOK from ROME, a book of collected materials by John Wieners, Charley Shively writes, “Poets may be arranged/deranged differently or why would they ever write the way they do? Poetry itself is a form of ecstasy, madness and disorder, which may well frighten the poet him/herself and their audiences.”
Shively makes me think of Plato’s reaction to poets. In “Ion” Plato says poets should be exiled from the city limits. He says it’s because poets cannot be trusted with knowledge, too busy with the occult and fairytales. I’m not convinced though that that’s the only reason, or even the main reason. I think this is an excuse because the real danger poets have posed in every century has been to challenge the power structures of their time.
Plato didn’t just say we poets should be told to shut our mouths, he was saying we should actually be removed from the city entirely. That censorship is severe, making poets a threat to the hypocritical template of democracy right from its very inception over 2,000 years ago. Poets have a history and a birthright to disturb.
I think of the courageous French poet Charlotte Delbo who was an undercover courier for the poet Louis Aragon, getting his poems out of occupied Paris. She was also printing and distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets with her husband when she was captured and sent to Auschwitz. She barely made it out of the death camp alive, but spent the rest of her life writing some of the most disturbing and beautiful poems anyone has ever written about trauma and survival. Horrific, breathtaking stanzas of torture, and then a line like this:
because it would be too stupid
for so many to have died
and for you to live
without doing anything with your life
Delbo is a poet I bring up as an example of how, if you just hang in there, take the emotional whipping of her terrifying accounts, you get these bursts of light like this stanza where you will be driven to tears while reading her. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but if someone is too fragile, maybe a poetry reading isn’t the best idea for a night out. Maybe do something else instead. Poetry is like an alarm clock that won’t stop screaming that we must wake up, and it’s not for everybody. I can’t even imagine asking Charlotte Delbo to provide trigger warnings.
JOS CHARLES: I think it’s worth trying to work towards a solution, to protect particularly these kind of victims while not policing the poet. Right now the general vibe I’ve got in previous conversations is ‘suck it up,’ ‘deal with it,’ etc. It sucks and removes responsibility / agency from the poet. I think trigger warnings are a start as I said but I would love to hear other options if anyone has any.
ANNA JOY SPRINGER: I don’t provide warnings in syllabi. When I start a class, a performance, or any other public performance engagement, I do often try to read the room to get a sense of what sort of people are in it. Hard to know, of course: The meekest, teeniest doe-eyed creature can be the one who experiences the most identification with transgressive writers, and the hardest looking one can be the most easily destroyed by unkind sentiment. I usually find it in my best interest, or in the best interest of the piece to let people know how to contextualize what I’m about to share with them if it’ll help them orient themselves to the experience. In classes at the university, I sometimes announce that the content in my classes often involves radical political ideas and impolite, even transgressive and painful materials. I let them know that the class is likely to offend students’ religious, political, and aesthetic sensibilities and they should feel free to take care of themselves in any way they need to at any time and that if they are especially sensitive to transgressive ideas, my classes will probably feel like torture and they might consider going to a different sort of class. When I was a younger teacher, I had more rules and less discussion. Now I have fewer rules, with more flexibility around discussion. I am prepared to improv in almost any theatrical situation now, but I began learning this ready-for-anything performance approach on punk stages and in recovery circles long ago.
I have no anti trigger-warning stance, but I do think it’s impossible to imagine what aesthetic objects might activate truly adverse reactions in various audience members. I suspect for some of us, being “bad” (that is, stopping ourselves from compulsively taking care of everyone else) might actually be the most important thing for us to try out on stage. For some of us, it might be a great thing to start noticing that there are others in the room and to imagine that they might deserve attention and care. That is, some of us need to practice a tiny bit of self-centeredness as a way to become less incapacitated, and some of us need to practice drilling some holes in our narcissism armor.
AISHAH SHAHIDAH SIMMONS: This is an important dialogue that is definitely occurring in various spaces/places. Some of my TFW [The Feminist Wire] friends/comrades (including Tamura A. Lomax, Monica J. Casper, Heidi Renee Lewis, Heather Laine Talley, David J. Leonard, and Darnell L. Moore) and I have discussed when and how we should use “trigger warnings” with our articles in our online publication. How do we decide what information requires a trigger warning and what information doesn’t require one?
In a January 14, 2014 post on TFW’s Facebook page, Feminist Scholar, Activist and TFW’s Managing Co-Editor Monica J. Casper wrote the following:
Thinking this morning about Trigger Warnings, and what purposes they serve, and what silences they enable. Do they warn people that their morning coffee might be disturbed by images of social injustice and hate? Do people find the broken bodies of women or the bruised faces of children or the bloody faces of dead elephants whose tusks have been sawed off unpalatable alongside the Cheerios and toast, and so must be steered away from those posts? What role do warnings serve, in a pop culture so deeply steeped in violence that every day on television, we can find bodies being blown apart. Maybe trigger warnings are a sanitizer, a permission slip to avoid feeling shitty about the things people do to each other and the world around us. To say to oneself, “Oh, I can skip that piece about rape/genocide/domestic violence, and go read the latest Jezebel piece about Jennifer Lawrence instead.” Whew, dodged that bullet!
Personally, I feel like my life’s work could be viewed as one big “trigger warning!” I am an incest and rape survivor. I’m very public about these aspects of my identity. For the past 22-years and counting, I’ve been in therapy with Clara Whaley-Perkins, Ph.D., a Black feminist licensed clinical psychologist and author who specializes in trauma. I talk about sexual violence more often than not. With that shared, I *still* get triggered. After years of therapy and a 12-year meditative practice, I have tools that I use to prevent me from staying triggered. Whenever possible (and often it’s not, especially in Hollywood films), I appreciate knowing in advance that this may happen. I like to know when I’m going to read about it or see it on screen. I don’t shy away from it at all. However, here are times when I like to use my privilege in the midst of my marginalization to decide that “this” may not be the best time. Chances are I will return to it especially if it’s not gratuitous gender-based, misogynist, homophobic/transphobic, and racist cinematic violence. I also recognize that this is a privilege to decide this. After being repeatedly molested as a child and raped as a young woman, I want the right to be able to decide, “if now is a good time…”
In the specific instances of both non-fiction writing and non-fiction filmmaking, I believe it is important that we witness the written and onscreen testimonials. If these courageous cis/trans women and men are able to write and/or speak about what they endured, I believe it’s important that we read and listen to their words. Sometimes “trigger warnings” give people the option to “opt out” and I’m not sure if that’s the route I want to go in formal and even informal educational spaces. Yes, I want everyone to take care of themselves. That should be non-negotiable. At the same time, if we all turned away from the atrocities that are occurring in this country and globally because we just can’t handle it, I’m not sure how we will ever be able to create a society and world that is safe for all of its inhabitants.
Queer Feminist Scholar, Activist and TFW Associate Editor Heather Laine Talley’s insights really challenged me to move beyond solely thinking about “trigger warning” in the context of gender-based or white supremacist violence. She reminds me that there are so many ways that people are triggered. She wrote:
The other thing that occurs to me is that trigger warnings currently operate within an established framework rather than an ongoing practice of empathetic consideration of the emotional ramifications for wide-ranging content. Violence is likely to elicit a trigger warning. Luxury good consumption is not, even though for folks desperate for healthcare or panicked about meeting their basic needs, this topic is easily (and understandably) triggering. I’d like to figure out strategies that avoid reifying that some injuries matter while invisibalizing others.
While I have and use tools to prevent me from spiraling downward into the trigger hole, I’m aware that so many people who have been racially, sexually, religiously, and economically violated do not have those tools. Many of those people are in our classrooms. They read our work, see our films, and/or hear our lectures, etc. What is our role, most especially in classrooms, when we really can’t be a therapist/support person while simultaneously being a teacher/professor/instructor, to ensuring that people are safe in our spaces?
I don’t have the answers. In fact, I have more questions. I know that I/we have a tremendous responsibility in our formal and informal educational settings. The stakes are higher when you’re also responsible for grading individuals, which is something I’m not fond of in the classes that I teach. Yes, I believe in a system that holds everyone accountable for meeting the requirements for a course. In my mind’s eye, however, that is not the same as assigning a letter or even numeric grades for the course.
I use very specific language in my syllabi in my courses. I go over the language line by line on the first day of class and subsequent days throughout the semester. Certain standard language in my syllabi is very specific:
It is very important to note that some of the required readings, films, and discussion topics will sensitive, controversial, and sometimes volatile issues. They include but are not limited to racial discrimination, gender-based violence, sexually explicit behavior, sex reassignment surgery, police brutality, incarceration, and the prison industrial complex. You may not opt out of reading a required text, viewing a required film, and/or participating in any of the required in-class and out of class assignments.
This syllabus is an agreement between the students and the instructor. Please read the syllabus in its entirety. Your taking this course means that you have agreed to accept the requirements and complete all of the assignments. Additionally, your taking this course means that you will both respect and treat our class meetings as a safe space for everyone.
The aforementioned language doesn’t mean that students in my courses won’t get triggered. I am giving them a heads up on the first day of class. They can read the titles of all of the films and books that we will cover and make a decision if my courses are the ones for them.
Part two of this roundtable will be published on Wednesday of this week.