Trigger Warnings as More Bourgeois Creep/iness

outstretched hand holding a skull.

To trigger warn, or not to trigger warn,that is not the question for me,

even though I am on the verge of presenting the documentary film Shake Hands with the Devil to my students in my Introduction to Intercultural Studiesclass.

But why not? Given the horrific details of the Rwandan Genocide, why not forewarn my students that some of them may find the material to be very upsetting?

My main justifications, like Ms. Rodness’ arguments and conclusions (see DisruptED : “Uniting Against the School of Harm,” by Roshaya Rodness) and those of the McMaster Professor whom she mentions having TA’ed for and being inspired by, are more or less as follows:

  • I have too much respect for my students as adults and students not to believe that the vast majority of them are, and should be, capable of sitting through a film that shows some disturbing socio-political and graphic material that sheds serious, concrete light on some of the main issues and concepts of our course (i.e. ethnocentrism, the longstanding racist consequences of Imperialism in places like Africa, segregation, genocide);
  • Perhaps, unlike Ms. Rodness – with 30 years of teaching experience behind me, and in several different contexts – I am more confident (perhaps too much so?) that I can deal with any consequences of said film showing including any negative institutional fall out that might come my way even though, as a sessional, I lack institutional clout. After all, in the course of my career, I have had to deal with suicidal and potentially suicidal students; with sheltered and Christian fundamentalist students who have objected strongly to the sexual explicitness of several novels and poems of some of my syllabi; with student meltdowns and shouting matches in the classroom – and usually, in the latter cases, it has been the more “mature” students who have “lost it.” I’ve also experienced significant disagreements about gender and ideological readings of texts and their related social significance with students, and resistance from white students who have objected strenuously in and out of class to being called on their whiteness in texts by the likes of Jamaica Kincaid and Dionne Brand…. I could go on, but you get the picture;
  • I’ve also tried very hard not to be provocative for the sake of simply being provocative when I construct a syllabus, give a lecture, or try to draw my students out to get them to engage with the objectives and ideas of a course. Based on the topics my courses engage with, I do expect to upset some of my students, and part of the aim in assigning such material is to challenge their beliefs, values, norms, and prejudices. One of my fundamental duties as an educator – as a profess-or – is to try turn the moments of shock, disbelief, push-back, upset, ressentiment, misunderstanding, etc., into something productive; to maintain and encourage real dialogue and reflection, the ultimate bases and arbiters of education. (And I am not for a moment suggesting that I have always succeeded in this task, especially since one never has absolute control over what happens in the classroom). Moreover, it is the occasional messiness of pedagogy that can, in fact, be an asset. I hesitate to subscribe to a pedagogy that simply looks to smooth things over for the sake of peace or consensus in a classroom at the expense of confronting and working through pedagogical choices, reactions, and possible errors that challenge one’s faith, intellectual biases, confidence, and power privilege (even, at times, as a sessional).

What is relatively unique to my take on the question of trigger warnings is how I tend to think of their recent proliferation as a sign not just of students being supposedly too “coddled,” or too “clientlist,” but as, in part, yet another indicator of what I like to call “Bourgeois Creep.” In my reading, there is a critical but undertheorized relation between the bourgeois counter-revolution of the last three-and-a-half decades (see David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism) that not only privileges the individual but a particular kind of individual and therefore the emergence and valorization of trigger warnings. Many writing on neoliberalism have noted the privatization of individual subjecthood and experience: that is, of a subject who now prefers not to know too much about the world other than how to negotiate it, to try to slip through life, primarily to their benefit; who prefers to avoid being discomforted because it may cause them to reflect on their own contradictions and roles in the neglect, marginalization, and oppression of others. In essence, to maintain a bourgeois perspective that desires not to have to confront the underpinnings and consequent difficulties of their own expansive privilege. Young people, too, have grown up and come of age in societies and school systems where the essential “hidden curriculum” has been largely based on testing and professionalization, turning out non-citizens for a supposed non-society (according to the famous dictum of Margaret Thatcher) that does not exist; a bankrupt social contract or social pedagogy that mainly reaffirms a bourgeois, neoliberal perspective.

Our students do not need trigger warnings as much as they need to become full citizens. And that should mean, like in most other aspects of life, learning how to deal with many things that are difficult to witness, endure, consider, tolerate, or accept. Part of our job as educators is to do our best to help students who are more vulnerable or fragile to do better rather than simply get through a course, or worse, avoid classroom experiences and pedagogic engagements that may challenge their world perspectives. And this also means trying to recognize our own limits as educators, and to call on other educators and professionals to help our students when the need arises.

Our students do not need trigger warnings. They need to be informed, intellectually and emotionally nurtured, so that they understand education is not a pass to feeling good but that one can feel and be made better – in the sense of becoming more fully alive, aware and active – by engaging with and confronting images, discourses, ideas and other points of view that we may find disturbing or contrary to our comfort zones or expectations.

Let’s use the trigger warnings debate to help us to do this, one triggerless, non-warning at a time.


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DisruptED: Education Interrupted Copyright © by Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Excellence, McMaster University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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