Trigger Warnings

September 10, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

I posted a trigger warning last week, the first one I have ever used.

I begin the semester contrasting individual facts with social facts, and the example I use is Durkheim’s study of suicide – suicide rates and social integration as social facts. In each of the past two semesters, a student has told me weeks later that he or she (one of each) had recently experienced the suicide of someone they were close to, and the topic still upset them. I had had no idea that I was tromping around on someone else’s understandably sensitive toes. For the remainder of the course, in selecting examples to illustrate sociological ideas in the remainder of the course, I tried to avoid suicide.

This semester, before the first class meeting, I posted an announcement on Canvas (or “course management system”):

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The University of Chicago does not approve. In a now-famous letter sent to incoming students last month, the Chicago Dean of Students Jay Ellison said

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings.’

I’m not sure why the Dean thinks it’s a good idea to spring disturbing material upon students without any advance notice. Maybe when it comes to movies he doesn’t like the MPAA warnings either. I do.

One evening long ago when I was a student, I went with some friends to see a new movie that they said had gotten good reviews and was by an important director.  Back then, before DVD, VHS, HBO, etc., if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the theater before the movie finished its run.
The movie was “Straw Dogs.” It’s another version of the adolescent boy’s fantasy that used to grace the inside covers of comic books.

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In “Straw Dogs,” instead of the bully kicking sand in the boy’s face while the girlfriend watches, the bullies rape the girl. And instead of merely returning to punch out one bully, the hero dispatches a septet of baddies using variously a fire poker, a shotgun, boiling oil, a nail gun, and a bear trap.

Immediately after seeing the movie, I was upset – angry at the movie, even angry at my friends. It was not the stupidity of the movie that disturbed me.  I’d seen the basic plot not just in comic book ads but in many American films. We American guys just loves us some justifiable revenge violence. What upset me was that the violence was viscerally arousing. The movie was rated R, but I had seen plenty of R movies. I just hadn’t seen any that put violence on the screen so effectively.* My reaction, I realized later, was probably like some people’s reaction to sex in the movies – it’s arousing in a way that they don’t want to be aroused, at least not by a movie. (They don’t want others to be aroused by it either, but that’s a separate issue.)

If someone had told me beforehand what to expect, my reaction to and against the film would not have been as strong, nor would I have been as pissed off at my friends for selecting the film. Maybe when film classes at Chicago show “Straw Dogs,” they remove the R rating and generally keep students in the dark. Apparently Dean Ellison would prefer it that way. Me, I’d warn the students in advance and risk being scoffed at as politically correct.

* Making violence arousing is something that Peckinpah is very good at. Pauline Kael famously said of “Straw Dogs” that it was “a fascist work of art.”     

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