Trigger Warnings (Again), and a Weird Sense of Disconnection

New academic year, new spate of newspaper articles on ‘trigger warnings’. This time, it’s the Guardian‘s piece by Frank Furedi, blazing with the news Too Many Academics Are Now Censoring ThemselvesNow, with the revelation that the government is discounting the voices of non-British academics, and with the knowledge that we’re in the middle of a process that will, quite likely, make it impossible for many of us to continue meaningful research reaching outside Britain at all, you might expect that this article would express some sense of genuine concerns.

Instead, it reminded me of the sorts of stream-of-consciousness speeches you sometimes hear at conferences, where someone – cradling a half-empty glass of warmish Echo Falls – demonstrates why he (or possibly she) is in the wrong business for working with students. Furedi describes how – apparently – a colleague’s lecture on the Holocaust was interrupted by a student yelling out a self-righteous rant: “Stop showing this, I did not come here to be traumatised!” Strong stuff, eh? Notice how it’s always a friend or a colleague this sort of thing happens to – not the author himself. Sort of like those anecdotes that begin ‘well, my mate was actually at Woodstock when …’.

It’s perhaps unfair of me to cast doubts on the complete and utter veracity of this section of the article. Of course, some students are ruder than others about the content of lectures, but my brittle sense of self-esteem is not generally crushed beyond repair by the odd negative comment, especially when I can use my special powers of mature reflection to determine that it probably says more about the student than it does about me. On the other hand, when I get comments that suggest, hmm, maybe I didn’t introduce that particular element (the graphic rape, say, or the really anti-semitic bit) as well as I might have done, I am also capable of thinking about why that was, and how I might do it better. Not, how I might self-censor. But how I might, you know, learn something new from my students.

The problem with this article is that, for all it claims ‘too many’ academics are ‘censoring themselves’ (what would be the correct number of self-censoring academics, Prof Furedi?), it seems to be describing a remarkable lack of … censorship. Furedi describes courses that continued in their tracks, and lectures that were given, and classes that continued despite student complaints, and exam questions that made it onto the paper. So, I was left wondering, is this really a bit of a storm in a teacup?

I’ve written, and thought, about the trigger warnings controversy before. I do worry about it. I do dislike the implication that, if a student finds something upsetting, shocking, or offensive, he or she should feel entitled to have it stricken from the course. I have read the stories of universities where academics feel they can’t teach texts like Titus Andronicus, because it’s got rape in it. I have seen student petitions to ban certain speakers, and I’ve worried about the way these petitions often do seem to demonise second-wave feminism. I do think there is a worrying link between the research and teaching interests of women – and especially lesbian women – and the topics that regularly seem to require ‘trigger warnings’. There is, surely, something deeply, unfortunately ironic in the fact that we, as a society, need to be having conversations about rape, and yet, conversations about rape frequently fall into the category of ‘things too painful to talk about here’.

And yet, despite all of those concerns, I really do find Furedi’s view on trigger warnings and censorship almost impossible to take seriously. I do not find that my students regularly request more warnings. I certainly don’t find them queuing up to tell me they can’t read this text or that text because it’s violent or offensive. I regularly teach texts that depict graphic rapes. I regularly teach texts that are outrageously, phenomenally racist in their portrayals of the Middle East, of Jewish people, of people of colour. There is an entire lecture series (not by me!) in our medieval literature paper, titled simply ‘Violence’. And the thing is, these topics are extremely popular with students. Students see content warnings on my lectures – so they know that lectures on ‘romance’ (which they might expect to be about love and kittens) are actually going to be quite nasty. And they don’t seem to object to that. They come, they debate, they want to have a space to talk about these things. Last week, the first question after the first lecture was ‘can I write a feminist essay on to these texts, please?’

Students need spaces to discuss difficult subjects. Obviously, my students are a specific group, in a specific place – but I just do not recognise them in the popular portrayals of students that crop up in article’s like Furedi’s. And I don’t see myself in his portrayal of ‘us’ academics – as someone carefully picking my words and ruefully deciding to limit my searing intelligence to the narrow confines of a more boring lecture. This may be because my intelligence is just, well, rather run-of-the-mill compared to the academics he quotes in his article. But, it’s much easier to claim you would have written a brilliant lecture – if only you’d felt you were allowed to do it – than to actually write that brilliant lecture, isn’t it? So, I feel a weird sense of disconnection when I read Furedi’s piece (and other pieces like it). Yes, these students who yell out polemics in lectures, who force their lecturers to self-censor, sound like a worry. But … where are they, and why have I not met them yet?

Safe Space and the University (Trigger Warning)

I’m turning over a lot of thoughts about safe spaces and triggers at the moment.

Next year, I’m going to go into a lecture hall, hopefully with about 50-70 undergraduates, and I’m going to talk to them about how a brutal rape becomes funny, and then, about how men use it as an excuse to act out violent homoerotic fantasies. I’m going to talk about how the rapist – like most rapists in this context – is an immigrant, a foreigner. Many of his co-rapists are black. They are all monstrous, probably by nature. But then, most women are natural liars, with no sense of loyalty. Even supposedly impartial observers are so disgusted with them (or so bored?) they’ll write whole accounts of this brutal rape narrative, without ever mentioning the word rape.

Well, ok. You know, if you’re reading this, that I’m talking about a fictional narrative, and a fictional narrative written over 500 years ago (though that ‘impartial observer’ I’m thinking of is a scholar, who deserves a ‘WTF were you thinking’ for his article on the Alliterative Morte). You probably know, if you read this blog regularly, that I won’t go into the lecture hall and say it all just as I’ve written it here. I will explain context; I will talk to my students about how insidiously damaging this narrative is, how it still influences us, how it lies to us. I will name the problems: I will call it misogynistic and racist. But, it will still upset a lot of those students.

I know that, statistically, in that class of 50-70 students, some will be survivors of rape or sexual assault. Some will be students of ethnic minorities. Well over half will be women. That lecture hall will not be a ‘safe space’ for them to learn about literature in. It’s really difficult to know what to do about that. Do I give these lectures – which I firmly believe are good literary criticism, and provide us with good tools to be wise to the ways in which literature perpetuates racism and misogyny? Or do I avoid saying anything that will have these students shrinking inside, and feeling personally exposed, and upset?

The context of this question is this letter, which I’ve signed, and which went out in the Observer today. The gist of it is that, at the moment, there’s a big debate about what ‘safe space’ should mean in a university. Should speakers who may be controversial – or worse, who may say profoundly upsetting things – be allowed to speak? Should students feel duty-bound to protest?

I want to be clear: this is not, for me, about ‘censorship’. That letter only mentions the word ‘censorship’ once – in the quoted title of an article providing context. I don’t think no-platforming any individual is censorship (I don’t like it, but that’s not what it amounts to). It seems reasonable enough to decide you don’t want someone to speak – and it’s certainly reasonable to demonstrate, or protest, against invitations to speakers with whose views you profoundly disagree. No. The problem is that, when you look at the bigger pattern, we are still much more willing to silence women than men, feminists than not. That’s a pattern that worries me.

It worries me because I would like to keep teaching in a context where I can talk about things that are profoundly upsetting, and triggering, and on which I do have an ideological perspective. I want to teach in a context where people feel able to disagree with me – absolutely, categorically, without reservations – but where they’ll talk to me about it. I don’t want to see a university where we never mention questions like the politics of rape, of heterosex, of prostitution, of race relations.