Review by Allison Hitt
You can access a video of this keynote here: http://vimeo.com/97721996
You can access other materials (e.g., slides, bibliography, full-text PDF of the keynote) here: http://siteslab.org/cwcon/2014/session/kn1/disable-all-things
Merideth Garcia created a Storify of articles on trigger warning, which you can access here: https://storify.com/mgarcia/trigger-warning
May 21: An article comes across my Facebook newsfeed attempting to address the recent string of near-belligerent arguments for/against trigger warnings. I think of the moment when—in a disability-themed comp class I was teaching—a student shared a video clip from Law & Order: SVU about the alleged rape of a girl with Down Syndrome. As I sat in the dark classroom, my students surrounding me, heart pounding & eyes watering, I wondered if I could walk out and what it would signal to my students if I did. After reading the article on Fb, I considered trying to make sense of my messy, complicated thoughts in a blog post. I closed my browser instead.
May 24: I’m reading every article I can find about the Isla Vista killings. When I click on the confession-style video attached to the news article I’m skimming, a warning comes on the screen letting me know that the content is disturbing. I brace myself.
June 6: Melanie Yergeau began her keynote by referencing where we could access materials, asking whether or not we could hear her, and describing the image I included above. The keynote is about disability, digital activism, and audience, so her attention to accessibility is perfect.
Content: disability, digital activism, audience
Yergeau situates disability within a larger culture of “non-experts” who decide that they are experts about disability. She references the panic that occurred after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. She references micro-aggressions and being told she couldn’t be autistic and a professor as an example (“Was I a faker? Was I worthy of an education?”). She describes disability culture as distributed, largely virtual, claiming that disability activists are often netroots activists because of the lack of face-to-face options. All of this is context for a consideration of how we think about disability rhetorically.
She states, slowly, “I want us to consider, to deeply consider, the ways in which we propagate a non-disabled default in our professional and our pedagogical spaces, including and beyond the digital.” This is something we need to consider in all contexts—when we’re writing, coding, tagging, passing legislation. Where are the disabled in these conversations?
Content: trigger warnings
Yergeau draws on Mia Mingus to argue for a collective disabling of all the things—that is, of toppling the myriad oppressive structures in our culture, our field. Disabling all the things involves not simply destroying these structures but also re-building a culture of access. Yergeau argues that the rhetoric of trigger warnings can help us uncover ableism in our culture and that the practice of using trigger warnings can be one site for disabling all the things.
Note (a piece of metadata, a label): This was not a discussion of whether or not we should use trigger warnings but rather a call to listen rhetorically to the discourse in and around them.
Trigger warnings, Yergeau argues, are a cripped kind of metadata that anticipate a disabled response. They decenter normative audience expectations. They are intersectional. Their use, style, and function varies depending on a community’s history (for example, trigger warnings may take different shape or have a different purpose in feminist and queer circles than in disability circles). In disability circles, trigger warnings are not for avoidance but preparation, to give an audience time to prepare to access that content more equitably.
Trigger warnings have received a substantial amount of media coverage lately, and the arguments both for and against them are aggressive, sometimes belligerently so. Yergeau notes that the reactions to trigger warnings as attacks on academic freedom connect to the panicked ADA reactions. These reactions raise questions about how we think about affect and metadata (how do labels carry different embodied meaning?) and how we tag, code, and organize data (what does it mean to issue a warning vs. a trigger warning vs. a disclaimer?).
In trigger warning discourse, trauma is bifurcated as either a normal, shared phenomenon or a pathological state requiring intervention. On one hand, a student is naïve, easily offended; on the other, the student is “truly disabled” and should stay away from these spaces. Yergeau notes that this rehabilitative impulse often manifests within our classrooms through—as Margaret Price notes in Mad at School—the distancing of teachers as therapists. That is, faculty often don’t address access because they’re unqualified to do so, but (& this is important) “being non-therapists does not absolve us of our responsibility to create equitable and inclusive classroom spaces.”
The issue remains, then, that the trigger warning discussion isn’t so easily a “yes/no” argument. Instead, we should ask: “how do we attend to, reinvent, make space, disable, dismantle, subvert, and rhetorically listen?”
Allison Hitt is a Ph.D. candidate in the Composition & Cultural Rhetoric program at Syracuse University. Her current work focuses on crafting more inclusive writing pedagogies that value non-normative literacies, rhetorical practices, & student bodies. She blogs about disability & accessibility at allisonhitt.wordpress.com.