• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

“Warning: May Contain Peanuts”: Trigger Warnings, Pedagogy, and Common Sense

I wish there had been a “trigger warning” during my music history course in 1980. I was finishing my undergraduate degree at Queen’s University and was enjoying a year-long “history of western music” survey at the Queen’s Conservatory. As we got deep into the twentieth century, things got very strange: serialism, musique concrète, dissonance of all sorts, 4’33”, and more.

What none of us expected, I am pretty sure, was a composition that our professor played for us one night with no introduction. The five-minute piece (it seemed much, much longer) featured alternating samples of environmental noise with a recording of the composer’s 12-year-old daughter reading woodenly from a pornographic account of copulation. Back and forth the piece went between sonic assaults and equally repellent prose…performed by a child.

My ears burned. I didn’t know whether to leave or stay. I was committed to learning, and the world has bad things in it with which one might well have to be acquainted. I’d studied the Holocaust in history courses, read Nietzsche’s worst vituperation in philosophy class, pondered Francis Bacon’s paintings–I was, even at the tender age of 20, determined to learn as much and as well as I could.

But this seemed to go over some kind of line.

I didn’t leave, but I did make an appointment to talk things over with the professor. And the question I raised was this: “If you, as the teacher, felt that you could make the point you wanted to make in no other way than to inflict this discomfort on us, then I guess you were right to proceed. But could you have made that point in a less violent fashion? Or could you have opted to make a somewhat compromised point in a somewhat compromised fashion so as not to assault students’ sensibilities? Could you even have given the students the option of missing out on that experience, if they preferred to do so, by offering a warning of what was to come?”

As a professor now myself, I try to avoid offence. Any responsible communicator does. Why alienate the audience you are trying to serve? And I know that if I include an offensive element in any speech I give—an alarming analogy, an upsetting joke, a shocking word—that element might so preoccupy the auditor as to obliterate any good he or she might otherwise have gained from hearing me.

So on simple rhetorical terms, there’s no good reason to blow up your own lecture.

Furthermore, on simple relational terms, there’s no good reason to harm your audience. To be sure, you can’t try to pick through everything you’re going to say and remove every element than someone, somehow, might find offensive. There are, sadly, people who seem to live to be offended, and not only on their own behalf, but on behalf of others. No chef can possibly remove every ingredient to which someone might be allergic, let alone to which someone might object.

But you can warn about peanuts. Or even try to just leave them out. A reasonable person can predict that this might well be a serious issue to a significant number of people. So you do the reasonable thing: either omit them or offer a trigger warning.

If a potential toxin is present, you give your audiences the opportunity to take appropriate protective action. That’s just common sense, and common courtesy. And to reply indignantly, “Well, then they won’t be quite as shocked!” is to confess that you like shocking people, and that’s something you and your therapist need to discuss…soon.

Yes, as many pundits are saying in the “trigger warning” debate in the US these days, one cannot expect to study literature, or history, or philosophy, or religion, or art or…pretty much anything involving real human beings without encountering disturbing occasions and elements. Professors must not bowdlerize reality to render the humanities and social sciences safely anodyne to the vast range of traumatized sensibilities they might encounter in the modern classroom.

But one can be a decent, compassionate human being and think for a few moments about how this might affect the people you’re serving.

And then do the right thing: omit the peanuts, or post a warning.