Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Trigger Warnings, Spoiler-Alerts, Philosophy and Film

Over the last couple of years, the practice of including "trigger warnings" on course syllabi or articulating them aloud in classes that include potentially disturbing, offensive or triggering content has become the institutional norm, if not also a requirement (as it is more or less becoming at many institutions). What detractors remain don't really question the fundamental advisability of trigger warnings anymore, but rather the practical details of their definition and scope.  As someone who teaches almost exclusively in the areas of moral and political philosophy, I've struggled a great deal with parsing the often subtle distinctions between "disturbing," "offensive" and "triggering" content.  Like any other decent teacher and moral agent, I do not wish to cause my students harm, though that does not necessarily mean that I do not wish them to sometimes reckon with material they may find disturbing or offensive.  In fact, I think there are a great many instances in which such reckoning has tremendous educational value, either because it provides students an opportunity to more carefully consider the true nature of the offense or, just as frequently, because it provides them an opportunity to revise what they have taken, indefensibly, to be "offensive."

I suspect that I am not alone among (especially nontenured, female) philosophy professors in being even more anxious about potentially "offensive" material discussed in my courses given the recent ugliness of the Abbate/McAdams case. I've been lucky, I think, to have avoided a situation like Abbate's so far.  Although I'm quite positive that students have been disturbed or offended by some of my course content, none have registered an official complaint or been moved to speak to me directly to that effect in the last ten years. That streak ended in my Philosophy of Film course a few weeks ago.

The film we screened was Leaving Las Vegas (1995), definitely one of the more graphic and disturbing films that we will consider in this course.  The theme for the week in which we watch it is "Free Will and Determinism," and the students have a number of readings related to that theme (by Sartre, Hume, Frankfurt, Lucas) to help frame the way I want them to watch the film. Leaving Las Vegas is rated R by the MPAA "for strong sexuality and language, violence and pervasive alcohol abuse."  The film has two protagonists: Ben (Nicolas Cage), a recently-divorced alcoholic who moves to Las Vegas with the expressed intention of drinking himself to death, and Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute who befriends, enables and ultimately cares for Ben in his final days.  Sera is abused in a number of physical, psychological and emotional ways throughout the film, including being beaten and raped by three college-aged men.  Leaving Las Vegas is a hyperbolically depressing film (to put it mildly) but, in prior iterations of this course, it's been an eminently effective tool for prompting students to think seriously about the extent to which the situations we find ourselves in determine our so-called "free" choices, and vice versa.

After class, one of my students approached me and asked if we could speak privately before I left.  She had only one question, and this is more or less a direct quote: "In the future, could you please let the class know in advance if the film we are watching will include violent sexual scenes, like rape?"

I said, yes, of course I can and will.  I said I'd be happy to sit down right then and talk if she wanted to say more about her reaction to the film we had just watched.  She said thank you (to the former) and no thank you (to the latter) and that was pretty much the whole of our conversation. She did not appear to be any more (or less) distraught than any of the other students were after the film ended, which I realize does not necessarily indicate (or fail to indicate) anything determinative.

Needless to say, this incident has given me both pause and motivation to rethink my position/practice with regard to trigger warnings. I think there's a reason that the first and only time I've had an encounter like this with a student is in a Philosophy and Film class (more on that below).  Here are the questions occupying me now in re trigger warnings:

1. What constitutes being "sufficiently warned"?
First, I should note that I do include a version of a "trigger warning" in the syllabus for this course, which reads as follows:
This course, like many philosophy courses, will include discussions of issues about which many people have strong personal views. Unlike most courses, however, this course will also include viewing films with content that some may find disturbing, offensive or otherwise off-putting. Students are encouraged to speak openly and honestly, even if they feel that their positions are unorthodox or unpopular. Passionate, even heated, philosophical discussions can be healthy educational experiences and are excellent opportunities to refine one’s own thinking and values. However, students are also required to treat their fellow classmates, especially those with whom they disagree, with respect. We will insist upon good-faith open-mindedness, professional decorum and mutual consideration from everyone at all times. There are no exceptions to this rule.
This is only a slight variation on the generic "trigger warning" included on all of my syllabi. (The sentence in bold is added for Philosophy of Film.)  I also say aloud to the class, before beginning films that I suspect they will find particularly disturbing, something to that effect.  What I do not do, however, is enumerate the specific elements of the film that I think students might find disturbing.

In my other (non-film) courses, it is not difficult to more or less "broadcast" that we will be addressing specific trigger-topics (rape, racist epithets, war, abuse, torture, abortion, et al) in advance of doing so in any particular class session.  I think this is considerably more challenging in a film class (see #3 following).  Yet, the question remains: how specific ought trigger warnings be in order to "sufficiently warn" those who might be triggered?  I do not ask this at all flippantly, but in a course like "Contemporary Moral Problems"-- a course that I teach multiple times every semester-- isn't the title of the course itself enough to indicate that it will include discussions of potentially disturbing/offensive/triggering topics?  Are generic references to "disturbing, offensive, triggering topics" too vague to accomplish the ends that trigger-warnings are intended to accomplish?

2. What is an acceptable accommodation for "triggered" students?
As someone deeply sympathetic with the aims of trigger warnings--which I take to be, at minimum, something like "not causing undue psychological or emotional harm to students"-- I nevertheless worry that in practice they amount to little more than a CYA "strategery." Including trigger warnings on your syllabi may immunize you to legal and administrative penalties, but if they only serve that largely formal purpose then, to my mind at least, they lose a great deal of their moral obligatory force.

If trigger warnings are not just CYA strategery, however, then we have to think them all the way through, past the point of their formal articulation and on to their effective implementation.  To wit, what ought one do when a student is triggered?  What is an acceptable accommodation?  Do I allow the student to leave class?  Do I exempt the student from an assignment?  Do I create alternative exam questions or paper-prompts for him or her?  Do I disallow other students' criticisms of his or her position?

Surely I am not the only person who has asked these questions. Yet, for all that has been written over the last year or so on trigger warnings, I've not seen any of them addressed directly (or adequately). Again, and for the record, I'm not posing these questions rhetorically.  I really want to know, and I welcome your advice/comments below.

3. What does one do with "trigger warnings" in a course like "Philosophy and Film"?
Film is an art form that is, arguably more than others, eminently dependent upon the experience of the work of art.  Especially in the case of narrative film, which is the exclusive form that I use in my Philosophy of Film course, the force of the narrative itself often depends upon the viewer "experiencing" (by proxy) some of things that are warned about in trigger warnings.  As Aristotle articulated in his Poetics with respect to tragedy, the very real experience of a certain amount of pity and fear is required. Anagnorisis (recognition) is, after all, the catalyst for the catharsis and the moral education that tragedy accomplishes.  On Aristotle's account, with which I am deeply sympathetic, I cannot achieve that recognition without really being able to identify, in a that-could-be-me way, with the enactments of a story that isn't mine but that I believe could have been mine. Tragedies like Oedipus are edifying in the end because they are mimetic: if one were actually experiencing Oedipus' plight as Oedipus, it would be terrifyingly awful, not instructive. Tragedy is edifying, and not traumatizing, precisely because it re-presents for us something universal about the human condition.  It does so by tapping into the deep and deeply sympathetic affective forces of our psyche, but instead of letting us be overcome and paralyzed by them, we instead to purge them safely and learn something true from the experience of not being overcome, of experiencing-then-releasing those affective forces and reflecting upon them. And so it is with film, I think, which is just one of the reasons that I teach my course as a Philosophy *and* Film course (rather than a Philosophy *of* Film course).

Why do people despise spoilers so much?  Because spoilers short-cut the narrative arc and, in so doing, neutralize an essential and experiential element of this particular art form.  I want my PhilFilm students to undergo the experiences depicted in film-- some of them surprising, some of them disturbing, some of them heartwarming, some of them genuinely perplexing-- which they cannot do in the same way or to the same extent if I reveal all of the narrative plot-points in advance. Of course, I do not want to them to undergo those experiences in the exact same way that the characters depicted in the film undergo them, but the affective proxy-experience is necessary for anagnorisis, and there is something in every film I select that I want students to recognize, to internalize, to ruminate upon and, upon reflection, to speculate about in a genuinely "philosophical" way.

On this anti-spoiler point, I cannot recommend highly enough the "White Bear" episode of Black Mirror (which you can watch in full here). Among other things, that episode dramatizes the difference between the experience of actually beings traumatized and the experience of experiencing someone else be traumatized.  The former is always awful and, of course, ought not be inflicted on anyone intentionally. (The "of course" in that sentence is not taken for granted in the "White Bear" episode, which is one of the things that makes it interesting.) The latter, on the other hand, can be edifying and morally educational.  (It can also be pathological and cruel, as depicted in "White Bear.")  Structurally speaking, the so-called "fourth wall" is the difference between the two. If I know that whatever joy, pain, shock or perplexity I am experiencing is a proxy-experience, i.e. "an experience of a work of art" and NOT what is often referred to phenomenologically as a "lived-experience," then I can undergo those pleasant or unpleasant affects in a constitutionally-different manner.  And, if Aristotle and Dewey and Heidegger (et al) are correct, I can learn something from those experiences that are (perhaps) only and uniquely provided by the experience of a work of art like film.

And so, at long last returning to the matter at hand, I am inclined to say that I want my PhilFilm students to be "upset" by some of the material they watch in my course. I want them to be "upset" in way that is qualitatively different than actually experiencing trauma, of course, but in a way that is also qualitatively different than the experience students in my regular Philosophy courses might have when we engage a thought-experiment (like the Trolley Problem, for example).  If I reveal all of the details of every film in advance, I suspect that I also in effect "spoil" the possibility of that experience.  This leaves two options, as I see it: (1) surrender what I see to be the pedagogically-valuable benefits of experiencing "controversial" films sans spoilers, or (2) elect not to screen films of that sort at all.


I hoped that, in the course of typing all of this out, I would have forced myself into a more resolute judgment on the matter.  Alas.

So, I'm soliciting advice from those of you who have thought more about your use of trigger warnings, especially those who may have also taught courses like Philosophy and Film.  My guess is that similar difficulties must arise when teaching Poetry or Fiction, i.e. art forms that rely upon some variant of imaginative proxy-experience that is qualitatively different from the structurally-neutral (and affectively-neutralized) thought-experiments that we philosophers often employ.   I'd prefer that whatever trigger-warnings I use in my courses be not only effective at heading-off harm to the vulnerable, but also exemplary of the kind of sympathetic/empathetic moral disposition that I aim to cultivate in all my students.  My worry is that, in a course like Philosophy and Film, these two aims are practically at odds.


Ammon Allred said...

Yeah, I also worry that they'll be at odds. My initial thought is to simply bite the simply CYA-route and give them links to, say, IMDB, letting them be the judge what content sounds offensive, and then providing a mechanism for alternate assignments, in which the onus is on them to construct an assignment that meets the relevant learning objectives. This is admittedly a totally legalistic approach, designed both to protect the instructor and dissuade students from pursing alternatives unless absolutely necessary.

This is in sharp contrast to my views on, say, ADA accommodations, where I try to be more proactive than the law requires, and probably stems from my inability to shake the view that most discussions of trigger-warnings are deeply misguided.

I say this as someone who works and cares deeply about the theme of trauma, its representation, and its effect on thought. I think that a safe and respectful classroom environment ought to provide a place where we can work through the challenges to thought that trauma poses in a way that doesn't simply repeat the trauma. Of course, this requires sensitivity in content selection, which is why we're highly trained experts who are paid big bucks. [wait...] Leaving Las Vegas, IMO, is exactly the sort of thing that is appropriate for class. But then, I wish that White Bear could be considered appropriate also.

I agree with you, though, that film may be a special case. But I'm wondering if it's not simply because of the visceral reaction that it provokes to watch it, particularly as a group. In fiction, I've taught Carson's Autobiography of Red, in which sexual abuse figures prominently. But I think that the fact that it's a novel in poems, and the fact that students are reading it on their own before class gives them some distance. I know that when I see something powerful and difficult, the emotional effect can make you feel vulnerable. And there might be good reasons that some students don't want to go through those kinds of powerful emotions in front of their peers.

So, assuming you watch the movies in class, maybe that can be compromise. Exempt students from that (I still think outsourcing the trigger warnings from IMDB), but expect them to work through the material on their own. Would that be fair?

robin said...

I've been thinking a lot about this too for my "arts & society" class, which is basically a history of US/UK pop music from the 70s to now. So, you know, lots of misogynist lyrics, lots of N-words dropped, sometimes by white people like Patti Smith, etc.

I wonder if film has its own special considerations--like, I can just substitute a different song--musicians make lots of them--or, often, the radio version. So, Leigh, I wonder if film is narrative in a specific way that makes the TW issue salient in distinctive ways.

I'm in agreement with Ammon on the real crux of the issue here: there IS value in working through this stuff, but experiencing the retraumatization in front of peers who you may or may not know or trust...that's it. Also, watching on their own, they can skip something if it is just too much.

Thanks for bringing this up and thinking through it so incisively (as usual!).

Holly said...

I like Ammon's recommendation to let students 'opt out' by watching on their own, but, of course, there's something very different about the experience of watching on your own and watching in a group, and there's some risk of 'outing' folks. I'm also not completely comfortable with the language of 'accommodation' either, since that again puts the onus on the student who is already subject to the potential normalization of their traumatizing experience. But maybe those are acceptable trade-offs, given the difficulty.
At base, the problem I keep running into is that education is often necessarily an education in other people's experience, but because of systematic inequalities this is disproportionately an education of the dominant culture, race, sex, ability, etc. in the experience of non-dominant groups. And this, of course, puts more of the burden of 'witnessing' (and, frankly, teaching) upon those who have experienced trauma or oppression, in the name of (at best) cultivating the social virtue of empathy among privileged students.
All that said, this has been a really useful discussion--thanks for what you do, Leigh!