I won't watch violent movies or television shows alone. That's because when I know that an act of extreme violence is about to happen, I close my eyes and turn away. I'm a weenie. I can't handle it. I rely on other people to describe the action.
Hollywood productions provide amped up music or silence that signals that something terrible is about to happen. But if you watch stuff on TV, there is often a warning before the movie or show starts. It never stops me from turning on the program. I accept these warnings.
But a push against warnings is at the heart of a fiery debate about what information students should be forced to consume in classes on college campuses throughout the country.
In August, University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison told incoming freshmen that the university promotes free speech and, as such, will not issue "trigger warnings," meaning students should not expect to find "safe spaces."
A trigger warning is an alert before a class, movie, or news broadcast that cautions that what follows might contain potentially disturbing information: graphic violence or sex, for example.
With his letter, Ellison kicked off the school year with a national debate that has pitted free speech advocates against those who believe that college should be a safe place to learn.
In response to Ellison's warning, President Morton Schapiro of Northwestern University, just 20 miles up Lakeshore Drive, said people like Ellison drive him nuts because they are coming from obtuse positions of privilege. Warning people that the material that will be presented in class could disturb them is not the same as silencing ideas or censoring content.
This is an important topic at Humboldt State University, where many students come from clashing backgrounds. Some come from urban areas and others from the sticks. We have students of color who find themselves in very white classes, and very white students who have never before interacted with people of color. Home-schooled students find themselves in classes with transgender peers. We have significant populations of Native Americans and military veterans. Many of our students are survivors of trauma. But they are all thrown together into classes required if they intend to graduate.
Those who went to the North Country Fair this past month might have seen me there in my role as free speech advocate, running a booth for the Humboldt Center for Constitutional Rights, for which I'm a board member. I encouraged people to take a Sharpie to tiny signs and air their personal grievances to celebrate our First Amendment rights to free speech. People made signs calling for voting for or against Trump, for or against gun control, for better pay for teachers and for free education for students. For one little girl who was concerned about the hot sun on the pet she brought to the All Species Parade, I made a sign that said, "More Water for Bunnies!"
So you'd think I'd be on the side of free speech on this one. But there is a reason I never joined any debate club and why I didn't apply for law school, even though I spent three months studying for the LSAT. I have a hard time with all-or-nothing arguments. Even as fanatically for free speech as I am, I appreciate trigger warnings and think there is a place for safe space on college campuses. I'd like to think that my classes are safe spaces to learn and freely discuss controversial topics.
At issue is the idea that students come into a classroom from all kinds of backgrounds. Some students come having experienced trauma — sexual assault or molestation, post-traumatic stress from military service, or having been victims of harassment based on their race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. To fail to recognize that is to deny the concept of equal education. A student who comes from a background free of those traumas might be able to easier process material that deals with sexuality and violence. That could give them an academic advantage.
Meanwhile, is any one piece of information necessary to get students to discuss and critically think about a topic? As teachers, aren't we after the most effective way to get students to learn? Is it necessary to shock someone to get them to think?
When I first started teaching, some dozen years ago, I taught a class on mass media analysis and planned a lesson on pornography. A colleague suggested I warn students ahead of time and give anyone who objected an alternate assignment that would allow them to skip the class. I thought that idea outrageous. How could any student taking a college class on mass media be allowed to opt out of course material or a class discussion on a topic I felt important? It didn't occur to me that, in all likelihood, some of my students had been victims of sexual assault. I connected the idea of a warning to students raised in sheltered backgrounds. I felt it was important to take these students out of their comfort zones.
In a reporting class, a student once called me out in student evaluations for having used the term "white trash." My initial reaction was irritation — I didn't like the idea of students trying to censor me. But then I realized that I was being called out as an elitist, that I had used a disparaging term to describe an entire group of people. I don't use that term anymore and censoring myself in this way has not lessened my effectiveness as a teacher. In trying to lower the barriers that separate me from students — to try to see the world from their different perspectives — I think I made my teaching more effective. And that's the goal, isn't it? In rethinking what information we present and how we present it, we can address difficult and controversial ideas in more effective ways.
This is different from political correctness, different from whether a white person can teach belly dancing or certain Halloween costumes should be banned or the names of sports teams or logos should be changed. Political correctness is a different discussion, one I'm not going to get into here.
Warning people about content and trying to present content that people are emotionally capable of consuming doesn't censor ideas or prevent dialogue. When done effectively, it can foster dialogue by ensuring that more people representing differing perspectives are engaged in the conversation.
Without the warnings, you risk sending some people this message: You are not welcome in my class or on my campus so find another place to learn.
When I close my eyes to disturbing scenes in movies or on TV, I still get their meaning. And really, half the time, the extreme violence or sex is totally unnecessary. The movie or program would have been better without it.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the
Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. The most disturbing program she watches these days is the evening news.