Someone at the Daily Mail appears to have been searching for material with content warnings and incidentally found the syllabus for a colleague’s course on Archaeologies of Modern Conflict at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. Even though it required implicitly humiliating military veterans and abuse victims, whom the paper would normally claim to valorise, the article decried Gabe Moshenska’s trigger warnings and delivered a payload quote from the so-called Campaign for Real Education about “health and safety going mad again” in an “overprotective nanny state”.
Unsurprisingly, the poorly-constructed attempt at an insult has been recycled by the Spectator, Breitbart, the National Review and elsewhere. The Guardian didn’t even bother to write a lazily contrarian piece on the affair, belatedly recycling the Daily Mail’s confused provocation.
Disappointingly, some colleagues have agreed that “if people cannot handle the material” – boom boom – they should not be there. Thankfully, other cultural heritage professionals have dealt with the critics’ supposed arguments – Andy Brockman and Tony Pollard on conflict archaeology, Howard Williams on mortuary archaeology…
Although it is a half-joke amongst my students and me that my course is depressing, I have never before issued a content warning. If nothing else, I have (lazily) assumed that discussion of protection of cultural property necessarily involves discussion of destruction of cultural property and the events within which it is destroyed, crisis and conflict.
I admit that I have also been put off by the misuse of the term “triggering” to mean “saddening”. However, as much as cosseted students should not be shielded from the realities of everyday life around the world, vulnerable people should not be left unsupported, particularly merely in order to shock and awe cosseted others.
I had not originally designed my course to present disturbing material to people who might be extraordinarily vulnerable to being disturbed. It is an accident of history that my teaching at the American University of Rome has been written and re-written over the course of the crises and conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond, as well as that my classes often include military veterans (and will, statistically speaking, include abuse victims too).
Originally designed around trafficking, my teaching includes ever more about genocide, iconoclasm and extremist propaganda; political/ethno-religious cleansing, displacement and people smuggling… Even within the “ordinary” discussion of trafficking, thanks to colleagues’ work on the “red market” in human remains, the material has become a lot more gruesome. So, from now on, my teaching will include a content warning, too.