Here’s a recent trigger warning from my personal life. A group of people organizing an art show in a small gallery in a local community centre had invited people to submit works of art about women’s lives. One painting caused a lot of controversy because it referred obliquely to back-street abortions. Some members of the hanging committee wanted not to have it in the show; others were in favour of hanging it. They reached a compromise by including the painting, while placing a trigger warning on the door of the exhibit, warning that some people might find the subject matter of some of the works offensive.
The day I went to see the exhibit, I read the warning on the door and went in. I was interested in seeing the whole exhibit, but the controversy about the one painting had especially piqued my curiosity. I wanted to see what it was about women’s lives that had been deemed “offensive.”
As I walked around the exhibition, I kept an eye on the glass doors where the warning was posted. I saw several adults, singly and in pairs, and one pair with a couple of kids around 13, approach the door, hand on handle, about to come in. I watched them read the trigger warning and go on their way without opening the door. In fact, while I was there, no one at all came into the gallery after reading the trigger warning.
I thought about all the lies that are told about women and women’s lives—in advertising, in family movies, on TV shows meant for general audiences. No trigger warning is deemed necessary there! But for the truth about women’s lives? Let’s make a trigger warning so people can avoid seeing it.
Trigger Warnings: Don’t Go There
In the current state of the internet, people often use trigger warnings to say “Don’t go there.” It is a legal nicety rather than something pro-active and helpful. “Don’t blame us!” it says, “We told you it was dangerous.”
A trigger warning tells a lie: it says “the danger is right here,” and implies that the rest of the world is safe.
Like those people who didn’t open the door to the art exhibit, a teacher who sees that a trigger warning is needed may decide not to use the material at all. Teachers may take the need for a trigger warning as an excuse to get out of a situation they might find uncomfortable. In the worst case, teachers protect themselves while pretending to protect the students.
In some ways, avoiding the difficult material makes life easier for the teacher, because the students “go away,” either mentally or physically. That is another serious problem, but unlike explosions in the classroom, the teacher can fail to notice it, or blame the students for being unmotivated or lazy.
If a trigger warning is needed, and the teacher decides not to go there, the students miss the opportunity to go there. Worse, because teachers have to provide something to read, they choose something bland, or something that seems “normal” in the mainstream culture. By doing so, they reinforce for students the idea that reading is dull and irrelevant, or describes the lives they ought to have rather than the lives they have. Once again they get the sense that there is something wrong with them as individuals, not that there is something wrong with the world.
As teachers of adult basic education, we know that students who come to us usually have a sense that there is something very wrong with them—that they are stupid or lazy, or have “bad” attitudes. We know that part of helping them succeed in our courses is helping them dispel that self perception.
Why sabotage our own efforts by refusing to choose material that will reflect our students’ lives, their struggles, their allies, and their hopes?