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Please Be Disturbed: Triggering Can Be Good for You, Kids

Brutalities cry for attention. Attention to the appalling causes disturbance. Deal with it. You’re at school to be disturbed.

Todd Gitlin
September 22, 2016
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; background photo: Triumph of the Will (1935) via YouTube; foreground photo: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; background photo: Triumph of the Will (1935) via YouTube; foreground photo: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; background photo: Triumph of the Will (1935) via YouTube; foreground photo: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; background photo: Triumph of the Will (1935) via YouTube; foreground photo: Shutterstock

This article was originally published on March 13, 2015, and re-upped for Campus Week.

In college, I took a sociology-history course that included a segment on Nazi Germany. One day, we were ushered into an auditorium where we sat through Triumph of the Will, probably the greatest Nazi propaganda film ever made. Leni Riefenstahl’s diabolically inspired 1935 paean to Hitler and his Nazi gang of usual subjects is brilliantly shot and edited to hold viewers rapt with wave after wave of spectacles. For almost two hours, the reverent, obedient masses go through the requisite motions at Nuremberg on Party Day, forming vast human battalions, reverberating in a demonic call-and-response with their lionhearted idol. In most of Riefenstahl’s sequences, individual life melts into rituals of submission and the mass worship of power. Equally compelling, and therefore terrifying, were the interspersed images of radiant young blonds frolicking in the sunshine in a summer-camp atmosphere. Weirdly, I remember best, probably for its erotic implications, a sequence in which some young Germans drink, or wash, from the same water spigot. Taken a few at a time or en masse, the Nazis are enraptured by the opportunity to sink into the (to them) transcendent embrace of der Führer. If ever there was a celebration of “Strength through Joy,” this is it. The ideological fusion is complete: eternal life, eternal surrender, eternal mass murder in the making.

Triumph lasts almost two hours. Some in the audience applauded. Then, shockingly, without any break or announcement, the screen came alive again and we segued directly into Alain Resnais’ 1955 Night and Fog, one of the first documentaries ever made about the Holocaust. Night and Fog, named after the Nazi code for some of their deportations, consists of barely more than a half hour of footage, recollections, and evocations from and of Auschwitz and Maidanek. What I recall—all I recall, actually—are long tracking shots of the camp ruins and images of corpses in heaps. Such images were not yet the virtual clichés they were to become. Still photos were around, not moving pictures.

Night and Fog is, as Philip Lopate has written, an “anti-documentary,” an “essay.” It has a voiceover narration in that brooding, insinuating fashion of the French avant-garde, which is, at its worst, arch, but in this case is rightly, breathtakingly, modest. The narrative is a virtual locus classicus of the human need to face up to the limits of representation. “Useless to describe what went on in these cells,” the narrator says. “Words are insufficient.” “No description, no picture can reveal their true dimension.” “Is it in vain that we try to remember?” To say the film broods and gouges and discomfits is to say that the sun warms. Night and Fog is an unbearable apotheosis of desolation that speaks to the necessity of our making a mental effort to grasp what is impossible to grasp—a duty that has been imposed upon us by history.

The juxtaposition of the two films was, of course, no accident. They were programmed in sequence to make unavoidable the sense of a causal vector running from the submissive ecstasies of Nuremberg to the horrors of Auschwitz. You didn’t need a diagram. It was a shattering afternoon. The audience left in dead silence.

I’ve not forgotten the shock and logic of the segue. (Neither has a classmate I checked with, who was there as well.) Those images were engraved into our souls. The cinematic double whammy certainly made me, to use the current euphemism, “uncomfortable.” Oh yes, to put it mildly, it made me very uncomfortable. That was the point. Mission accomplished, Professor Sam Beer of Harvard’s Soc Sci 2. You impressed upon this 19-year-old soul an unbearable, ineradicable warning about mass rallies and mass murder. You didn’t draw me a diagram. You burned into me that more powerful thing: a synapse.

Now, my memory fails to answer the question of whether, on this occasion, we were told in advance what we were going to see. I think not, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume I remember correctly. Should we have been issued a “trigger warning”?

Hell, no. The pedagogical tactic was precisely to produce discomfort; to wound us; to crumple our innocence. Discomfort was the crucible for a “teachable moment.” We—I dare speak for my classmates—needed shocking. Had we not been shocked, upended, we would have been deprived of the profundity of the Riefenstahl-Resnais mixtape. Jarring was of the essence. A viewer left in comfort would be a viewer left ignorant.

The principle applies no less now than ever. The other day, at Columbia, I heard the Syrian journalist Charif Kiwan introduce an hourlong compilation of scenes from that destroyed nation, shot anonymously by Abounaddara, a collective of cameraphone-bearing amateurs. Beforehand, Kiwan told the audience: “We want to haunt your imagination. Please be disturbed.” This is the necessary anthem of a wounded world. Please be disturbed.


Which brings me to the subject of “trigger warnings.” This term does not refer to apprehension about the prospect of guns brought onto campus. It has to do with the subject matter and tenor of texts and films thought, rightly or wrongly, to be frightening. It’s argued that students who’ve been sexually assaulted are particularly vulnerable to flashbacks from unhealed traumas. At Columbia, students read Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the required Literature Humanities course (known familiarly as Lit Hum), which runs through the first year of the College’s Core Curriculum. Last year, one student advocate of trigger warnings scoured the entire Lit Hum syllabus and counted “80 instances of assault” in Ovid alone. There are rapes, there are more rapes, and there are attempted rapes. Partly to protect the vulnerable and partly on ideological principle, trigger-warning advocates want to mandate advance alerts in class. Teachers should be required to signal beforehand—Caution: Rapes Ahead.

Having annotated the entire curriculum, this student noted that in the assigned Lit Hum texts “mass rapes were almost always directed at a conquered group.” Who was responsible for these awful choices? she asked, and answered that Columbia’s once-overwhelmingly-dominant white males had compiled a virtual prayer book to enshrine the works—and privileges—of their group.

Put aside for the moment scholarly disputes about the influences of Egypt and Phoenicia on the ancient Greeks. Would the skin color or culture of the Athenians matter to anyone ? If the Greeks themselves had been people of color, would it then be permissible to read The Odyssey? The subject invites a host of absurdities, not least a penchant for rhetorical overkill. This student cited above went on to write: “Our intellectual inheritance is … often shoved down our throats by the administration as absolute and inalienable—we’re asked to be ‘critical readers,’ sure, but rarely to critically examine the content of the texts themselves.” If intellectual force-feeding is what this student experienced, he or she should have her tuition refunded. It’s hard for me to imagine that any of the 60-odd preceptors, faculty, and graduate students who teach the various 22-student sections of the Core command the uncritical ingestion of sacred texts. (I teach sections of another Core course, Contemporary Western Civilization, myself, I must disclose. I don’t teach that way.)

One might well add, Why stop with Ovid? Has anyone taken a look at the Old Testament recently? Lot’s two daughters slept with him in order to continue his line (Genesis 19). Joshua slaughtered 12,000 Canaanites in one day (Joshua 8) and soon thereafter “smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: He left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (Joshua 10:40). In the Holy Book, no one is judged harshly for war crimes. Is the Bible a manual for righteous massacres? Should trigger warnings be mandated? Should the Columbia Core print up a new edition of the Bible with a frontispiece warning the tender reader against the gruesome stories to be found therein?


There’s another way of looking at the annals of slaughter and rape that thread through the history of civilization—this civilization or any other. It is this: A record of civilization that lacks such accounts is a lie. “There is no document of civilization,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Universities are not fallout shelters. (Once again, Kant: Dare to know!) Brutalities cry for attention. Attention to the appalling causes disturbance. Deal with it. You’re at school to be disturbed. Universities are very much in the business of trying to get you to rethink why you believe what you believe and whether you have grounds for believing it. At a time when almost twice as many freshmen think it is either “very important” or “essential” to be “very well off financially” as to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life,” it is more than ever incumbent upon the university to lift its eyes from capital campaigns and get on about getting students to consider the world.

That said, truly the traumatized, especially victims of sexual violence whose traumas can be reactivated by what they read, see, and hear, are entitled to some kind of alert. What exactly should be said to such people, by whom, and when, is beyond my ken. But why the high tide of panic? Is it truly the case that, in the spirit of what Robin Morgan once wrote about pornography, “Ovid is the theory, rape is the practice”? The reaction is so wildly disproportionate to any actual harms, it’s overdue to ask what’s going on.

And on this score, it’s hard to resist the thought that overwrought charges against the trigger-happy curriculum are outgrowths of fragility, or perceptions of fragility, or of fears of fragility running amok. When students are held, or hold themselves, to be just minutes away from psychic disaster, is it because they know “real” fragility is sweeping across the land? Or has there arisen a new generational norm of fragility, against which fortifications are needed? Whatever the case, angst about fragility cuts across political lines and crosses campus borders. Shall we therefore stop talking about rape, lynching, death camps? Shall we stop reading the annals of civilization, which are, among other things, annals of slaughter? I was talking the other day to a Columbia sophomore, Tony Qian, who put the point pithily: “If you’re going to live outside Plato’s cave, you’ve got to be brave.” What ever happened to, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free”? Not comfortable—free.


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Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.