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Trigger Warnings, Evidence-Based Policy and Media Literacy

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With complete disregard for irony, Conservatives are sometimes triggered laughably easily.

When the brown folks forget their station, for example. When we ladies get too ballsy. And God forbid if anyone dares fuck with our fairtyales.

A couple of weeks ago a brouhaha centred on teaching media literacy through fairytales. Apparently any attempt to teach children to critically think about our culture’s parade of pretty-and-pitiful princesses is feminism run amok. No one, of course, was actually advocating for the abolition of these stories but, predictably, Conservatives - fervent in their opposition to anything that looks like change or smells like independent thinking - packaged the story as political correctness gone awry. Again.

This week and a new incarnation of the untouchable topic of children’s reading lists has reared its head, this time coupled with the well-established boogeymen for Conservatives: trigger warnings. Once again, the (albeit very complicated) challenge of managing risk in secondary schools has become another story of those special snowflakes birthed by leftie educators.

I’ve written about trigger warnings quite a bit (here and here, for example), and participated in extensive media commentary about them (see this or that). In brief, I think that while they are often well-intentioned that frequently they lead to unintended, and sometimes completely unpleasant consequences.

This week the story is rooted in a debate over whether the novels assigned to VCE students should come with content warnings. Some assigned books, apparently, are a tad depressing.

I won’t go so far as to claim that trigger warnings have become trendy, but they’ve certainly become the default response of education institutions who want to both demonstrate that we’re compassionate and to avoid litigation.

With universities widely implementing these warnings, it’s no surprise that the flow-on effect is other education environments examining their merit. Hence the debate on whether they are necessary in the secondary school English classroom.

One of my central concerns with trigger warnings is the absence of an evidence base demonstrating their efficacy. Where is the research that documents trauma experienced by students at the hands of educators teaching controversial content? Where, equally, is the proof that students who are forewarned about such material fare better? Where, similarly, is the nuanced discussion about the actual complexity of triggers? Where is the acknowledgement that simply saying the word rape, or reading a story about a harmful culture practice is no more likely to revictimise than certain smells or songs or weather?

Another concern relates to my worry that we have become a culture scared of emotions. Is there anything more powerful than being able to be moved by a book, by a film? Do we not in fact, praise media that can bring us to tears, to fear, to states of arousal? Why then, are we so frightened about young people feeling things when they read? When they sit in a classroom? Why have we decided that students are best off being warned about the possibility of emoting? Why are we so hesitant to acknowledge that - shock horror - having emotions is an important clue that we’re alive?

Reading, writing, arithmetic, sure, but one far more important skill is learning how to think. Every semester I tell my students that I have no interest in teaching them what to think, but how. If we were all taught media literacy - if our culture truly valued critical thinking - I dare say the term “fake news” would have made much less of a cultural dent.

Schools equally need to cultivate an interest in encouraging resilience. That students can read a book, that they can have a cry - that they can, occasionally, feel like they want to roll into the foetal position and have a good hard sob - but that this too shall pass. That no single emotion is the be all and end all.

I don’t actually have a problem with students being told in advance that a novel covers challenging material. Truth be told, I think in the current political climate doing so is unavoidable. That said, is challenging material not the very reason that the book was assigned to the curriculum in the first place? Is not learning how to think about such challenging material the very reason for the classroom?

I unquestionably have concerns about classroom snowflakes. But I have far more concerns about a culture that has become so incredibly uncomfortable about emotion, and so ready to buy into risk-anxieties - and to make policy accordingly - without any evidence.

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