Links: Thursday, March 6th

March 6, 2014 Links 6

A young girl in jeans and a pink jacket stands in a city square and holds above her head a sign that says "DOWN WITH SPIDERS" A cause I support 100%

  • Triggered – The New Republic published an article the other day entitled “Trigger Happy: The ‘Trigger Warning’ Has Spread from Blogs to College Classes. Can It Be Stopped?” I thought it was both poorly argued and mean-spirited, and Melissa McEwan does a good job of breaking down how the article fails her.

    Well, first it’s important to understand what a trigger warning actually is. And for that, it’s important to understand what being triggered really means: Being triggered does not mean “being upset” or “being offended” or “being angry,” or any other euphemism people who roll their eyes long-sufferingly in the direction of trigger warnings tend to imagine it to mean. Being triggered has a very specific meaning that relates to evoking a physical and/or emotional response to a survived trauma or sustained systemic abuse.

    To say, “I was triggered” is not to say, as it is frequently mischaracterized, “I got my delicate fee-fees hurt.” It is to say, “I had a significantly mood-altering experience of anxiety.” Someone who is triggered may experience anything from a brief moment of dizziness, to a shortness of breath and a racing pulse, to a full-blown panic attack.

    Speaking about trigger warnings as though they exist for the purposes of indulging fragile sensibilities fundamentally misses their purpose: To mitigate harm.

  • The Trigger Warned Syllabus – Not everyone is a fan of trigger warnings, of course, but I find their arguments unpersuasive. Is it so burdensome to state upfront that you’ll be discussing something upsetting like sexual assault, abuse or warfare? Can’t lecturers list it on a syllabus so students can prepare themselves or speak to the teacher ahead of time?

    But, I’m not sure that’s at all the kind of deliberation universities are doing with their trigger warning policies. Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

  • Forget The Oscar: Jared Leto Was Miscast in Dallas Buyers Club – Time ran this and another piece criticizing Hollywood’s practice of using male actors to portray trans women. Not only does it limit the work available for trans actresses, it perpetuates this idea that trans women are just men in a dress and makeup and playing a role.

    As a trans woman, I’ve been watching movies that have major roles with trans characters for years. Film after film, I’ve sat on my couch or theater seat and wondered to myself why the directors almost never get it right. Why is the main or supporting character played by a cisgender person when they have plenty of other actors in the film that are trans, and giving a stellar performance? Did the investors of the film decide it was too risky? Was it the director who felt that the trans people who auditioned were not good enough? Did the director even audition trans people?

  • It Turns Out My Partner Is a Woman, So What Does That Make Me? – I thought this was an honest, thought-provoking look at how gender and orientation intersect and when language can’t quite do it justice.

    When you find out that the person you love is of a different gender than you’d thought, you end up with a lot of questions. Amidst the cacophony of questions I had about her, her experience, her thoughts, the vocabulary, the pronouns, the medical information, the surgical plans and all the other minutiae, the one thing I kept circling back to had nothing to do with her. It was about me:

    I’m a self-identified gay man whose partner is a woman, so what does that make me?

  • Let’s Call Sex Work What It Is: Work – Melissa Gira Grant is over at The Nation with an excerpt from her book Playing the Whore where she advocates decriminalizing sex work and treating it as work to lift the stigma that dogs those who do this work.

    Opponents of the sex industry, from the European Women’s Lobby to reactionary feminist bloggers, like to claim that sex workers have the audacity to insist that their work is “a job like any other.” By this, it’s safe to say, anti–sex work activists are not simply agreeing with sex workers that the conditions under which sexual services are offered can be as unstable and undesirable as those cutting cuticles, giving colonics or diapering someone else’s babies.

    What sex work opponents actually have in mind when they cringe at the idea that sex work could be “a job like any other” is that sex work does not—and cannot—resemble their work. When anti–sex work crusaders think of “jobs,” they’re thinking of their more respected labor administering social projects, conducting research and lobbying. To consider sex work to be on the same level as that work breaks down the divisions that elevate some forms of labor while denigrating others.

  • May Day 2014: Scarleteen Strikes (Or, With Your Help, We Don’t.) – It’d be a shame if Scarleteen had to go offline. They’re a wonderfully accessible source of accurate sex-ed for teens and young adults.

    We’re deeply disheartened to announce that we effectively were able to raise nothing from this year’s ask. Nothing from the one big ask we depend on to keep going, whose returns, when we see them, are needed to pay for our basic costs so we can provide things people rave about day after day, year after year.

    What we’re left to work with at the present time, then, is what we receive on average from donors right now, which only comes out to around $3,000 a month. That’s less than the monthly median household income in the United States to run a single household, when we’re an organization that serves millions each year; one of the few places online created and run expressly and solely to provide truly comprehensive sexuality and relationships education, information and support for young people, for free, and has been doing so for a decade and a half as a pioneer and leader in the field. That’s not enough for us to do all that we do.

    With no radical change in giving and support immediately — and a change that is permanent, not just reactionary — Scarleteen as we know it, and as our users use it, may just be over.

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An ice hockey fan from north of Boston and the genre's most beloved troll, Ridley enjoys reading contemporary and historical romance, as well as the odd erotica novel. As someone who uses a wheelchair, she takes a particular interest in disability themes.

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6 Responses to “Links: Thursday, March 6th”

  1. Sunita

    Thanks for linking to the original article, Ridley, and thanks also to Liz for her links. I read the TNR article and found it didn’t represent my reality at all, but neither does the equation of trigger warnings on syllabi with student-as-consumer issues. I regularly teach reading material that expresses racist, classist, and other supremacist attitudes and studies fairly unpleasant events, eve horrific ones. I try to make the reasons for using the material as explicit as I can, and I am open to student concerns about it, that is, I encourage them to tell me if the actual reading and discussing is something that might be difficult for them.

    I don’t think I use any truly “triggering” material, although everyone’s triggers are different. There are so many ways to approach a given subject that you can usually find something that isn’t literally triggering even if it’s unsettling. But it’s a line we negotiate all the time. Students are exploring the intersection of intellect and emotion in a lot of these topics, and it’s hard to anticipate all contingencies.

    This isn’t really a new issue, except for university administrators deciding it’s something they need to have a policy about (my cynical explanation is that they’re worried about liability). I remember vividly two occasions from my long-ago college days: (1) an older, conservative professor asked me gently during a one-on-one meeting if I was OK with reading Hegel, since Hegel is so prejudiced and belittling of Hindus. He was worried I would feel not offended, but diminished. I don’t know what he would have done had I said yes (I honestly thought it was amusing and very 19thC European of Hegel), since the whole class was spent reading Philosophy of History. (2) I read Forster’s Passage To India and it was as close to a triggering experience as I’ve had. I couldn’t read Forster for years. The message of that novel, to me, was that I was a logical impossibility (because of the themes of the novel), and that DID make me feel diminished and worse. I read it anyway, analyzed it, got an A in the class. And felt like shit for quite a while. But it was a formative intellectual experience for me. So I’m not sorry it happened? It’s so hard to have a clear bottom line.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  2. Ridley

    @Sunita: Don’t apologize, it’s a great comment.

    What I think drives a lot of the resistance to trigger warnings is a misunderstanding of how anxiety and panic attacks work and/or an assumption that all those who manage PTSD need to avoid anything that triggers them. Sometimes just not being surprised by something can help people avoid being triggered by it. After all, if they’re out and about in a university setting, they likely already have a number of coping strategies in place.

    In your Forster example, do you think someone giving you a heads up about the content would’ve helped you process it differently and not feel diminished? I know for myself that reading something I know is ableist going into it hurts a lot less than reading something and finding ableism where I didn’t expect to find it.

  3. Sunita

    @Ridley: That’s a great point. Yes, I think it would have helped. I was really touched by the Hegel professor’s question, I didn’t expect it at all. In the Forster case I think it still would have bothered me but maybe it wouldn’t have been so jarring and difficult. The fact that they (the two professors who taught the class) talked about it in terms of colonialist attitudes helped, but they didn’t talk at all about Forster’s issues with his own homosexuality, which would have made me understand him more as someone who was also an outsider, not just a privileged white dude, and I might have felt a commonality with him rather than feeling shut out.

    You’re right about the heads-up potentially making the experience more manageable. I find that a lot of my students *want* to understand social and political processes that they find emotionally difficult, and I see it as part of my job to help them find a way through that, to gain intellectual understanding without having to suppress or deny their emotional engagement.

  4. nu

    I agree, trigger warnings aren’t a new phenomenon. We’re used to warning before graphic content (“viewer discretion” comes to mind), even in casual conversation, and I think that’s the operative word, graphic. The video that instigated the student’s complaint and the resulting policy was graphic according to the student. The proposal included the typical trigger list from feminist guidelines, and that kind of content’s typically contained in a scene, easy to snip from a clip or reading, I would imagine. Colonialism, etc. are more insidious, either entire texts or casual, throwaway lines, in my experience. I was more alarmed when a teacher didn’t say anything at all afterwards to even acknowledge racism when it surfaced in a text. The discussion around that material is important. It makes it clear that a student is in a safe space and not just another racist or colonialist place. I had to read a lot of historical British lit for my minor, so needless to say, I read a lot of casual racism, but it was only in high school that a teacher bothered to mention anything on the subject to me, and I appreciated it a lot. Maybe she spoiled me because I kept waiting for other profs to say something too. So maybe that’s a benefit of the policy, educating some unconcerned about these topics. OTOH, I think even those who make genuine efforts don’t want to be liable if a student complains they forgot to warn for a scene, which I understand.

  5. Amara

    I’m frankly discombobulated by this academic controversy over trigger warnings. It’s so *not* about people being too delicate or about “allowing” them not to face their traumas.

    I can think of two examples of literary works I regularly use trigger warnings for (both in the syllabus and verbally about a week before the reading comes up): Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” and O’Brien’s short “The Things They Carried.” Usually, I’ll give students a range of reading options for those class meetings so they don’t have to self-identify, but I want them to have the choice. I’ve had students thank me for those warnings—they may have worked through those experiences in therapy, but that doesn’t mean they have to be blindsided in the classroom for the sake of course material.

    Sure, there are some disciplines/courses where potentially traumatic information is integral to the course—I could teach an intro literature course without such material, but a Deviance course wouldn’t have that option. But I feel like it’s my responsibility as a professor (and just as a human being) to be sensitive to the ways in which students might be psychologically affected by extreme course material. It’s not unreasonable to give them a heads up so they’re at least prepared. I’ve had several students still read the material, and in fact they’ve found it cathartic, but they knew going in that they needed to prepare themselves mentally.

    I can certainly see how institutionalized trigger warnings in academic could move toward the absurd, but I’m totally willing to accept that risk if it means my students aren’t re-traumatized.

    Sorry for the rant…apparently, this is a hot button for me.