Classroom Censorship Can Improve Learning Environment

Cyrus Eosphoros, Online Editor

Content Warning: This article contains discussion of common triggers (rape, violence, abuse), as well as suicide and hostility to consent.

I am sick of appearing reasonable to people who believe common courtesy is a civil rights violation.

When we talk about social change, conservative positions have a basic advantage: Their wishes have already been granted. Progressives approach conservatives with preemptive appeasement: “No, look, I don’t believe the stereotypical things that progressives are supposed to believe. I’m perfectly normal; I want just this little thing. Won’t you let me have it?” The marriage-equality version of the “See, we’re reasonable” tactic was “We’re not threatening your marriages; we want to be married like you!”

The version for trigger warnings is “No one wants to take material off the syllabus; we just want to be warned before engaging with it!” This makes an assumption that all material on every college syllabus should be there — that the content of courses cannot be challenged.

In response, I’d like to make a case for censorship.

To be clear, I emphatically support content warnings for all media, especially in classrooms. Informed consent is impossible without people knowing what they’re getting into. This is the side we generally encounter advocacy for: People should have the right to know and consent to what they’re putting into their minds, just as they have the right to know and consent to what they’re putting into their bodies. No one campaigns against ingredients lists in Stevenson Dining Hall. In the case of professors who are against trigger warnings, it’s at best ironic that educators uphold the narrative that ideas have less of an effect on a person than peanuts.

Providing warnings also sends a powerful message. A person giving content warnings is saying that they’re aware of exactly what in the material is potentially harmful.

It says that they know what they’re doing. Two people could, for example, write the same story, featuring abuse and rape within a relationship that the narrative treats as the perfect couple. If the author seems to agree, even if I’m not triggered by it, it scares me. I feel like I’m looking at someone who thinks that such behavior is normal and healthy. If the author warns their readers, I know that they know that they’ve depicted harmful, evil acts and to treat real victims respectfully, even if the characters they’ve written wouldn’t.

But not all content is created equal, and sometimes, the audience just doesn’t need it.

Two semesters in a row, I have had classes that used material depicting suicide and a protagonist’s abuse by a parent. The classes were taught by different professors in different departments, with markedly different aims. In neither case did I get warnings from the syllabus or professor; I was lucky to have friends who warned me instead.

The first case, a movie, had the violent content onscreen in detail. From physical abuse of a child by a parent to rape to suicide, absolutely nothing was left to the imagination. The oppressive, mounting misery these acts produced appeared to be what motivated the plot; as far as I can remember, it was the plot. I wasn’t able to finish it. The film was assigned for a Spanish class, and I’m a native speaker. When I felt myself stop breathing, I turned the movie off, choosing instead to read the Wikipedia article. I figured I could muddle through discussion with basic plot knowledge.

When my Spanish class discussed the film, no one brought up the rape, the suicide, the abuse. We had a class-long discussion — yes, using our new vocabulary — on whether the main character should’ve been a cook. Whether or not the violence was necessary to the plot line, it was utterly irrelevant to our class. The same function could have been served by another story. Since the reason we watched the movie was to teach a 300-level class new words in their context, that means any film not written for small children would do. So any film in the Spanish-language canon would’ve worked.

The second case was a play — Antigone — in a politics course. My friends warned me, and I steeled myself for the eponymous character’s suicide. When class came the next day, the main topic of discussion was whether Antigone should’ve committed suicide — whether it was rational, correct, the best option. When I’ve spent two decades fending off the logic that suicide is the way out, that discussion should’ve been unbearable. And it was hard to stomach, especially since I found myself arguing that yes, Antigone was right to choose to die. But we were discussing the act in context, and the contrasting framework of the plot of the story and the theory we were working with grounded me. I was able to argue that a girl my age should throw her life away as a political statement without feeling the noose around my own neck.

I have written for the Review before on attempting to acquire content warnings as a classroom accommodation (“Content Warnings Needed as Accommodations,” The Oberlin Review, Feb. 27, 2015). One opponent was the Office of Disability Services’ mantra: “Accommodations may not change the essential nature of the course.” “The essential nature of the course” is defined by the professor; decisions about whether someone’s would-be accommodations are worth potential inconvenience for faculty are made behind closed doors. There is no appeals process.

Since the administration is so devoted to the ideal versions of its courses, I feel it is only reasonable to ask that the people who make up the administration hew to their own standards. The Office of Disability Services and, by extension, the College itself, has given an explicit way of judging the rights of students against the value of a syllabus. I will not ask for empathy or for compassion, only that all parties be held to the same standard.

We are academics. Devotion to the “essential nature” of something seems perfectly in character. If a professor feels like putting their students — over whom they have substantial power — in danger, the least they could do is prove it’s necessary to their course. If hurting people is vital to the professor’s pedagogy, the proof should be obvious. But if it isn’t necessary to their course, removing harmful material is automatically a reasonable accommodation. The professor has just admitted that “the essential nature of the course” will be unchanged.

Why would it ever be the case that a professor would include toxic material in their class if its educational value were purely decorative? Who would bring poison into their syllabus without the intention of examining it as such? Maybe the professor in question isn’t thinking, maybe they found a piece of material that filled a gap and didn’t consider its effects. On the other side of the spectrum, maybe they find empowerment in the ability to use their classroom and syllabus to control, at least for a while, students’ thoughts and feelings. Maybe they’re somewhere in the middle — the material evoked a strong but harmless reaction in them, which they wanted to share with others, and they don’t realize that others may react differently. Every person’s reasoning is sure to be different. I encourage anyone for whom this hits home to engage in self-reflection, so that the choice to pose harm to others — if they take it — is an informed one.

On an institutional level, I’m done asking for change based on compassion or empathy. Pretty as it may sound, it doesn’t work. I demand self-consistency instead.

Professors: If the ability to hurt your students is necessary to your class, prove it. If it’s necessary to you personally, ask yourself why.