“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.


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

  1. pmcdc

    if I include an offensive element in any speech…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.
    definitely the case in preaching, which is also just common sense, and which we had drilled into us in seminary. that usually went paired with the story of the sign on some preacher’s pulpit: “sir, we would hear of Jesus”.

  2. Donna-Jean Brown

    My serious self says that I totally agree, especially just after hearing a preacher say from the pulpit that he gets lots of emails telling him that his jokes are sacrilegious but that he doesn’t care and his critics should just lighten up.
    And another part of me thinks that the bible should have a great big label on it saying “Trigger warning”.

    • John

      Indeed. I have often thought that several books of the Bible need to have “PG-13” or even “R” ratings…and not just the Song of Solomon. (How about the Book of Judges, for example? Yikes.)

  3. James Enns

    You never finish the story of your visit to the professor’s office. How did he answer your question? Just curious as to how that exchange turned out.

    • John

      He and I had a good talk. He was glad, he said, that I had actually come to him with my concern rather than going immediately to his department head. (That was a good lesson to have reinforced!) And he was glad that my concern seemed to be about learning, rather than about merely “not being offended.” So he agreed that there was a legitimate point being raised, I thanked him for a course I was thoroughly enjoying and for listening to me so courteously, and that was that.


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