Trigger Warnings and our “incapacity to unexperience”

I just want to draw readers attention to a really interesting piece by Leigh Johnson over at her blog

A few weeks ago in my Philosophy and Film course, we screened Werner Hertzog‘s film Grizzly Man for our “documentary” week. Grizzly Man tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, who spent thirteen summers in the Alaskan wilderness living with grizzly bears– all the while filming his trans-species communion– before being tragically attacked and killed by a bear in 2003. Treadwell was filming on the day that he died, though he did not have time to remove the lens caps from his camera before being attacked, so there remains only an audio recording of his (and his girlfriend, Anna Huguenard’s) gruesome death. Hertzog does not include that audio in his documentary.  In fact, there is a scene in the film where we see Hertzog listening to the recording for the first time and then, afterwards, remarking to Treadwell’s friend: “You must never listen to this.” What is more, in a gesture practicallyverboten for documentary filmmakers, Hertzog instructs Treadwell’s friend to destroy the tape.

You can literally hear the regret in Hertzog’s voice, his longing to unring the bell, as he instructs Treadwell’s friend to destroy the recording.  For cinephiles like myself, this is an especially powerful injunction, coming as it does from Hertzog, a man who was once shot during an interview and responded only with the calmly stoic remark: “it was not a significant bullet.”

. . . I’m still unsure if we should have listened to the recording in class or not.  If we had–which, again, we did not–this would have constituted (for me, anyway) an unequivocal case for a trigger warning. That this is an “unequivocal” case is important, as I’ve found myself increasingly ambivalent about the merits and demerits of trigger warnings over the last year or so.

Read the whole piece here. 

4 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings and our “incapacity to unexperience”

  1. Thanks for this; what a great piece. I found myself a little confused by Johnson’s explicit comments on trigger warnings. For example, at the end she writes,

    “I am now entirely convinced that the paternalistic/protectionist approach– the most reductive of which can be found in the issuance of trigger warnings sans explicit, substantive engagement with why “triggers” trigger– is not only ill-advised and ineffective, but also pedagogically unproductive. Our efforts are far better spent learning how to facilitate difficult conversations about how each other’s vulnerabilities, capacities, lives and experiences impose a moral claim on all of us.”

    On my understanding, trigger warnings at their most basic is just a note on the syllabus and/or a comment in class letting students know that an assigned reading has certain kinds of content or an upcoming class will be on a particular topic. I’m wondering, though, whether Johnson, and perhaps a lot of people who worry about tws have something else in mind, because I’m having a really hard time seeing how a simple heads up can be paternalistic. Are trigger warnings commonly conceived as involving the option to opt out of an assignment or something? Have I been misunderstanding the debate?

  2. I’m not sure what Johnson has in mind there — I found that part a bit confusing too (I do know people who think merely that kind of note is paternalistic, but I don’t know if she does, or if she has something different in mind).

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