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Unknown Knowns?

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.Donald Rumsfeld, 12 February 2002. Emphasis added.

I’ve loved the above quote from Donald Rumsfeld for a long time. It hits you hard like a zen koan: upon first hearing it, you think it’s nonsensical, possibly even word salad. But after further reflection, it strikes you as actually quite profound, and even eloquent.

At least that was my response to it. If you responded differently, you might just want to stop reading now, because the rest of this post might not be for you.

Anyway, it’s a quote that I find myself returning to again and again, even 15 years (yikes!) after Rumsfeld first said it. And I thought of it today, when I watched a recent episode of Tom Scott’s Youtube series “Things You Might Not Know.”

Click on this image to go to Things You Might Not Know’s video “You Can Hear The Difference Between Hot and Cold Water”

This video struck me because it made really explicit, to me, the existence of the one category of “unknown” Rumsfeld doesn’t address: there are unknown knowns. To break it down in simple terms, like Donnie did, there are things that we know that we might not even be aware of knowing.

This isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. What I’m talking about is very similar—though subtly different—from the idea of “tacit knowledge” that Michael Polanyi first brought up in his books Personal Knowledge and The Tacit Dimension, first published in the 50s and 60s. Tacit knowledge refers to the idea that there are some things we know that we don’t often explicitly explain or codify,  and for that reason may not know how to adequately explain. Tacit knowledge is often linked to a sense of “know-how,” an operational understanding, a series of techniques and approaches.

Back to the video: the title makes a statement that I initially thought was absurd. You can tell the difference between hot and cold water by listening? How? Why? Huh? I watched the video expecting to gain explicit knowledge, a little “trick,” a “life hack.”

And then the presenter pours water. From two identical pitchers, into two identical mugs. They don’t show it happening, so as not to give you any visual clues. Until the moment the pouring began, I was waiting to hear the trick. I didn’t expect to have any idea which was which. But when I heard the water being poured, I just instinctively knew. One just sounded “cold.” The other sounded “warm.”

I realized that I had encountered something even deeper than “tacit knowledge.” I had discovered, within myself, a piece of tacit knowledge that I wasn’t even aware I possessed. When I read the title, it had actually struck me as absurd. You can’t tell the temperature of water from how it sounds! But there it was. I could. I knew that already, tacitly, without even knowing that I knew it.

There are unknown knowns.

 

Romneycare: A Counterfactual

Editorial cartoon: Barak Obama and Mitt Romney hold hands with identical children, one labeled “Obamacare” and one labeled “Romneycare in MA” Romney says to Obama, “Your kid is ugly.”

I know historians are supposed to reject counterfactuals, but let’s play counterfactual history. (Hey, some of us don’t play fantasy football!)

Let’s say that Romney won the nomination in 2008 and beat Obama. At the time, a lot of people on both sides of the aisle realized that the healthcare system was broken (how soon the Republicans have forgotten). Romney would have probably pushed something very similar to Obamacare.

Remember, Obamacare was based on Romneycare in Massachusetts, and proposals based on the Heritage Foundation’s proposals. So it would have looked very similar. Obama chose to back that proposal not because he thought it was ideal, but because he’s the kind of person who defines politics as the art of the possible.

The line that both progressives who favored single payer and conservatives who hated Obamacare were told was that it was an incremental step towards socialized medicine. But nobody would have said that if it had come from Whitebread McMoneybags. Nobody is mistaking Mittens for Che Guevara.

At this point, the same problems that have come about from Obamacare would be presenting themselves about Romneycare National Edition. Only the Republicans would be scrambling to keep the gains they made, not the Democrats.

And after eight years of Mitt Romney, which would have been kind of dark for a lot of people but nothing like the Looming Garbage Fire On the Horizon we have now, we’d have a Democrat in the White House. Almost any Democrat. Trump wouldn’t have ascended without Obama to raise hell against. The Democrats would likely hold the Senate, and the Tea Party takeover of the narrowly-controlled House would not have happened. When Scalia passed away, Mitt would have been in a similar boat to the one Obama was in, and he would have been replaced by a Republican Merrick Garland, a middle of the road conservative that would, if anything, push the SCOTUS more to the center. Liberal judges retiring in the next eight years could breathe easy.

President Literally Any Democrat would have a strong mandate, and would currently be working with the Senate Majority Leader and the House Minority Whip to get the votes necessary to implement a single payer plan. Because the mandate was there and if s/he shapes it right, the votes would be there. Because there *would be* some issues with Romneycare National Edition, just like there *are* some issues with Obamacare. We’d just be, as a nation, much better posed to address them in the appropriate and sensible manner–ie, by getting rid of the inherent waste of the for-profit, insurance based model.

Instead of fighting tooth and nail to defend the Republicans’ scraps from the pivoted, irrational right Republican Party, we’d be in a good place to have a reasoned debate about the merits of a single payer system.

This counterfactual has been bothering me all day. Not because I wish Romney had won… I’ve never voted for the man, and a lot of progress that has been made under Obama wouldn’t have been made under Romney. But because it makes me feel like so much of politics comes down to the messenger. We would be poised, on this one very important issue, an issue important to all Americans–but especially to the most vulnerable among us– for a very different discussion right now… And one that is much better for those most vulnerable, if Obamacare had been brought to us simply by a different messenger. A messenger with different political and racial baggage.

I want to think that politics is bigger than the identity of the messenger. I really do. But I’m not sure.

#LunarAttraction Playlist

Picture of Lunar Lander and AstronautMy wife and I recently visited the Peabody Essex Museum‘s Lunar Attraction exhibit. One of the more unique features of the exhibit was that they put together a playlist and installed a listening station in the exhibit, where people could listen to various moon-related songs.

Both Greta and are pretty voracious music nerds. We still have a CD player in our car, and we make mix CDs whenever we’re going on a longer drive. I personally like to make themed mixes, especially– I’ve made mixes of train songs, a mix of songs with synonyms for “stupid” in the title, a mix of songs with numbers in the title, in numeric order… So when we encountered the Lunar Attraction playlist, we both wanted to share our own takes on the theme. Greta’s playlist can be found here. Now here’s mine:


It’s Only A Paper Moon — Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards

I’ve always loved this song– so much so that I purchased a copy of the failed play that it comes from, “The Great Magoo.”  This particular version is by Cliff Edwards, who is perhaps best remembered today as the voice of Jiminy Cricket… Though he was one of the top stars of his day, and should also be remembered for being the first person to record “Singin’ in the Rain,” back in 1929.

Mr. Moonlight — The Beatles

I’m not the biggest fan of the Beatles– something I chalk up to too much exposure to them in my formative years. But I like the Latin percussion and harmonies of this track off Beatles for Sale. It was apparently originally recorded by Piano Red, a blues pianist, under the name “Doctor Feelgood and the Interns.” Which is a pretty amazing name for a band…

Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught Me In Its Spotlight)– Thin Lizzy

This 1977 track from Thin Lizzy seems to me to fall pretty squarely into the genre of vaguely retro ’70s rock songs that harken back to the teenie bopper pop themes of the early 1960s, while still sounding like the ’70s. (See “Crocodile Rock,” et al.)

Moonlight —  Maria Muldaur

Muldaur is remembered primarily for her somewhat schlocky but undeniably still amazing “Midnight at the Oasis,” a song that I have long loved, but don’t always admit that love in public. This track is a jazzy take on a Bob Dylan song from her 2006 album, Heart of Mine: Maria Muldaur Sings Love Songs Of Bob Dylan.

Mr. Moon — Clover

I’ve been slowly, over the last few years, warming up to 1960s California country rock. That said, I still do now and will always hate The Eagles. Don’t play the Eagles in my presence. That said, this song just makes me happy and relaxed. Weirdly, Clover’s closest brush with fame was their uncredited recording as the backing band on Elvis Costello’s debut album, My Aim is True. So yeah, next time you’re tapping your toe to a new wave classic like “Alison” or “Less Than Zero,” think about the fact that the band you’re listening to spent most of their time together sounding a lot more like The Band. Genre is always a convenient lie.

Moon River —  Patty Griffin

Patty Griffin covers what is possibly Henry Mancini’s best-loved song. I picked this version from the many because it’s haunting, quiet, and evocative. But it was a hard choice– this song is one of those standards that almost everyone seems to knock out of the park. On a side note, I went to see Henry Mancini lead his band back in elementary school. I guess it was my first concert. I’ve loved him ever since.

Dancing in the Moonlight — King Harvest

That Wurlitzer organ line. Every time. Just makes me happy. This song was a staple of oldies radio when I was a kid– and I listened to a LOT of oldies radio as a kid. When I was playing this mix for Greta, she remarked that she had always thought this song was by Van Morrison. Turns out she wasn’t alone. Per the Wikipedia page for “Dancing in the Moonlight”:

The song is often wrongly primarily attributed to Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, or “Kink Harris”, due to incorrect labeling on various digital download services. Neither Morrison nor Costello has recorded a version of “Dancing in the Moonlight”, and “Kink Harris” does not exist.

Man on the Moon — R.E.M.

R.E.M. is a band that I can take or leave. But this song is about Andy Kaufman, and I love Andy Kaufman. I actually came about this close to writing my senior thesis in college about Andy Kaufman, before I made it more generally about humor theory. I have a picture of Andy Kaufman in my office. For that matter, I have the WWE action figure two-pack of Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler in my office, too.

Anyway, I always liked how this song brought the idea of Kaufman faking his death together with the conspiracy theories about a faked moon landing… And this is a moon mix, so there you are. Any excuse to spread the Gospel of Andy.

There Was a Moon — Jacob Borshard

Jacob Borshard is a cartoonist and musician out of Austin, Texas. He plays the ukulele and sings songs about romantic regret, artists, dinosaurs, and Batman. If this sounds a bit too twee for your tastes, it probably is, but I love his songs. He’s self-released several albums, all of which can be downloaded for free here. Check him out!

Leave Me On The Moon — Beck

Beck included an earlier version of this song on Fresh Meat and Old Slabs, a mix tape that he made for his mother Bibbe Hansen, as a birthday gift. She went on to copy the tape for fans of her son.

This later version is from the soundtrack to the film Kill The Moonlight, a student film homage to ’70s grindhouse cinema by Steve Hanft, which Hanft completed in 1992. The soundtrack was released by Sympathy for the Record Industry in 1997.

Meanwhile, “Kill the Moonlight” is actually sampled on Beck’s 1994 breakthrough hit, “Loser.”

Bad Moon Rising — Creedence Clearwater Revival

Another standby of Oldies stations when I was growing up. Another song that I could, if I chose, made a Big Lebowski reference about. Just a cheery, uptempo song about the coming Apocalypse.

Blue Moon Take #2 — Bob Dylan

It’s 1969. You’re Bob Dylan, and you’re getting kind of tired of the whole “voice of a generation” thing being foisted on you, and the responsibility that comes with that. You just wanna play some music, man. So what do you do? You start recording Self Portrait, your follow-up to the classic Nashville Skyline, and your second double album. (Your first was Blonde on Blonde.) As you record, this cover-laden album becomes a monument to weirdness, to the point that Griel Marcus opened his Rolling Stone review of the album with the sentence “What is this shit?”

It’s a difficult album to listen to, to be sure, but I always find little diamonds in the rough whenever I listen to it. This somewhat messier alternate take on his cover of “Blue Moon” is one example. In all that sloppy, silly, weirdness… there’s just something there. Something better than the sum of the song’s parts.

Moon Rise — The Royals

The Royals (previously the Four Falcons, eventually to become The Midnighters) were a Doo Wop and R&B vocal group out of Detroit. They recorded this song on May 10, 1952, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The song became a regional hit in Philadelphia– the kind of success that got one onto the Hot 100’s “Bubbling Under” charts. I included it here because it’s just so beautiful and etherial. It sounds like a moonrise.

Mountains in the Moonlight — Johnnie Ray

The moon was at one point thought to have powers over the mind. That’s why the root of the word “lunatic” is “luna,” Latin for moon. What I love about this track is how the singer sounds right on the verge of coming unhinged.

Johnnie Ray, the singer on this track, was known for having a voice jam packed with emotion. He was known by nicknames including “the Nabob of Sob,” “Mr. Emotion,” and “The Prince of Wails.” His vocal special was a certain brand of melodramatic emotional delicacy that, for a while in the early 1950s, the teenaged crowd ate up. “Mountains in the Moonlight” is one of his less successful songs from that early period, but it is still a great example of his style.

Moon Watching —  Shin Joong Hyun

This is the only instrumental in this playlist. I included it because I can’t get enough of Shin Joong Hyun’s music. While his career goes back to 1958, when this track was recorded in South Korea, I– like most Western listeners– only recently became familiar with his work when Light in the Attic records released Beautiful Rivers And Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sound Of South Korea’s Shin Joong Hyun 1958-74. This surf-infused early track is great, but the album’s highlights are really the deeply psychedelic (and sometimes New Age-tinged) tracks from later in his career.  The man deserves to be better recognized in the States: he’s a great guitarist, and you’ll never mistake his music for anyone else’s you’ve ever heard.

New Moon — Sambassadeur

This is the first track on Swedish Indie-Pop band Sambassadeur’s eponymous first album. According to Labrador Records, their label, “Sambassadeur started as a DIY version of ABBA in the year 2003.”

Look, I’ll admit– I know next to nothing about Sambassadeur. I got this track on a mix CD from a friend back in 2006-2007. I liked it. I now have a handful of Sambassadeur songs on my iTunes, but I’ve never really sought out their music. But every time I hear a song from this band, I like it.

Sent to the Moon — Tullycraft

Seattle-based twee-pop band Tullycraft has been together since 1995, and to my constant amazement and consternation, they still seem to be relatively obscure. Maybe because their songs are full of obscure name dropping– of which “Sent to the Moon” is a great example. Another Tullycraft song that name-drops right and left is also a great description of the kind of songs Tullycraft plays: “Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend’s Too Stupid To Know About.”

This track is from their 2002 album Beat Surf Fun, which is precisely as sunny and fun as it sounds.

Hippy, Skippy, Moon Strut — The Moon People

This boogaloo obscurity might sound familiar. That’s probably because you’re thinking of Christina Aguilera’s 2006 “Ain’t No Other Man,” which was built off samples from this song. “Hippy, Skippy, Moon Strut,” in turn, was an edit of “Happy Soul (With A Hook)” by Dave Cortez with The Moon People, which in turn was a remix of “The Happy Man” by Los Astronautas, which was a vocal-less mix of “(I’ll Be A) Happy Man” by The Latin Blues Band.

At least I think that’s the case– it’s all hard to sort out. Spectro-Pop Express has a good explanation of the convoluted history of this track here.

Whatever you wanna call it, in any of it’s versions, it’s a funky, fun song.

Skinhead Moonstomp — Symarip

Syramip was a British ska and reggae band made up of the children of East Indian immigrants. They became one of the first bands to notice the growing population of skinheads in their audience, and to write songs that targeted and catered to them. This was in the late sixties, when “skinhead” was a working-class, multiethnic variant on mod fashion, before the term (and the subculture) became almost synonymous with racism.

“Skinhead Moonstomp” was first released in 1969, and was later re-released as a single in 1980, as a response to the 2-Tone ska craze. It’s a great dance anthem, as long as people look past the associations that people have come to have with the term “skinhead” since it was recorded.

Mr. Moon — Kate Micucci 

Do you happen to remember when, on season 9 of the show Scrubs, the accountant Ted met and fell in love with a sweet, gawky ukulele player named Stephanie Gooch? Or do you happen to be a fan of novelty music duo Garfunkel and Oates? If so, you probably are already familiar with Kate Micucci.

If not, Google her name, and you’ll probably say “oh, wasn’t she on that one episode of that one thing?” and be scrambling off to IMDB. In any case, her solo stuff is pretty sweet too.

This is a totally different “Mr. Moon” than the above one. This song follows the casual adventures of the Moon one day when he played hookie from, you know, being the moon, and instead went for a swim on Earth.

Blue Moon of Kentucky — Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe’s signature song, Elvis Presley’s first single, the official bluegrass song of the Bluegrass State.

There’s really no reason I should need to introduce this song. And the video below of Bill Monroe singing it has him introducing it anyway, and I’d trust him to speak to the song over me any day.

Moonlight in Vermont — Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong

I have to admit, I was torn between this version of the jazz standard and Willie Nelson’s version off of Stardust. To me, Willie’s will always be the definitive version, but this beats it out (just barely) for sheer beauty.

Things I learned about “Moonlight in Vermont” in writing up this description: 1) The song has no rhyme scheme. I’m not sure how I never noticed that before. 2) Except for the bridge, each verse of “Moonlight in Vermont” is a haiku.

 

Income Inequality and the Rise of Helicopter Parenting

Children at play-- under the supervision of the playground monitor-- in New York's Seward Park, the city's first municipal playground. Photo courtesy New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Children at play– under the supervision of the playground monitor– in New York’s Seward Park, the city’s first municipal playground. Photo courtesy New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

A friend posted Megan McArdle’s Bloomberg article “Seven Reasons We Hate Free-Range Parenting” on my Facebook feed today, and as I wrote my comments, it quickly became apparent that my response was just far too long for a Facebook comment. So I’m putting it here. This isn’t meant to be especially thought out or carefully researched, but since the topic overlaps somewhat with some areas of my research, I felt it might be worthwhile to share my scattered thoughts.

I think that “reasons” 3 and 7– about women’s move to the workplace and increasing national wealth– are especially compelling. Along with number 7’s unspoken converse of sorts– “many of us are wealthier, but the haves and have-nots are getting farther apart.”

The free-range parenting being so idyllically recalled, we must remember, is the result of a specific historical moment– the mid-twentieth century, when income disparity was at a historic low.

If we look to the Gilded Age, it’s a different story, as urban children were heavily supervised either by parents or domestics– or they were working themselves. Rural children often enjoyed a greater degree of freedom, but they were often bound to the farm, part of the production model of their family.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, as the middle class and merchants were beginning to move to streetcar suburbs and immigration was at an historic high, the playground movement began in cities like NYC as a response to the number of tenement children unsupervised in the streets, raising themselves. Middle class reformers began calling for playgrounds– which at the time included indoor spaces as well as outdoor and were strictly monitored and supervised by Playground Attendants. The idea was that too many working class kids were out on the streets, and we need to pin them in and supervise them… For their own good, of course.

As America cut off immigration after WWI and began to homogenize economically, the idea of supervising playground play began to lose favor. It is the children of the Depression through the early 1980s who remember fondly a sprawling world of urban and suburban play and childhood that often included interacting with children of different backgrounds, class, etc.

The new age of helicopter parenting coincides with a growth in economic disparity, which creates more clashes over what McArdle describes as “generally accepted child-rearing practices.” Class disparity usually leads to schisms in “generally accepted behavior.” People facing different concerns, different worries, and different economic realities usually don’t agree on everything. Disparity in income brings about conflicts about acceptable behavior.

Wealthier parents supervise more closely, because they can afford to, and because of the pressures McArdle discusses to build a good college application. Poorer parents are forced to cut corners, perhaps give less supervision. For middle-class and wealthy parents, the world is more and more filled with danger, in the form of creeping poverty— something that is very real as the middle class shrinks.

With our cultural gospel of a college degree as the path to the middle class, more privileged parents look more and more carefully at other parents’ choices in child rearing, as they don’t want their children’s friends to hold them back. The parenting practices of the working class and poor are held under ever-higher scrutiny, and when their choices are not like those of parents of more means, those parents are less likely to be sympathetic, because they fundamentally don’t understand the economic reality poorer families face.

Parenting practices are often cyclical, like so many other things, and the pendulum continues to swing. But if the last thirty years seems like the world getting more and more out of whack, that might be because the pendulum has been thrown wildly out of its regular back and forth motion by a rise in income disparity unlike any since the Progressive Era.

The Katzenjammer Kids at the Armory Show: 2014 MOCCA Fest Presentation

In April, the Society of Illustrators held the annual MOCCA Arts Festival, which I was lucky enough to speak at. They recorded it, and put it up on the web. So I thought I’d share it here in case anyone’s interested.

From “The Blight of Literary Bookishness,” by Percival Chubb, Anti-Comics Crusader

“Sometimes we can coax these immigrants who come to us to dance and sing; but very rarely. They soon get shamed out of their cunning, and join our hosts of patrons who seek relief from monotonous toil in the dime show and the saloon, the “yellow” newspaper and magazine. Yes, it is we, with our over-commercialized life—commercialized drama and opera, commercialized book production and story-making—who have carried farthest this strangling of the arts of the folk. It is we through whom these participants in a living folk-culture sink to the lowest estate as passive patrons of our tawdry and tainted shows.

“No doubt the causes are complex. I shall not attempt an enumeration, but will limit myself to the consequences of the increasing vogue of the book, the mortal tyranny of print. I return, then, to my text that the book is killing the sensuous beauty and emotional appeal of literature. The book lies between us and the essentials of literary beauty. It lies between us and vital literary education. We read our lyrics and our stories, but we don’t sing them and recite them. We cannot even imagine tunes for them as we read—for those lovely lyrical overflows which flood Shakespeare’s plays with melody, for those songs of Burns, for those remaining folk-songs and ballads which are finding cold storage in our anthologies. They are gone with the crooning and lilting of our forefathers, with the singing games of childhood, with the great festivals of the folk.”

–From “The Blight of Literary Bookishness,” (1914) by Percival Chubb, Anti-Comics Crusader

Trigger Warning: History Ahead

This New Republic article on universities adopting policies that professors adopt “trigger warning” policies before material that may be potentially upsetting started a really interesting discussion among some of my friends on Facebook, and as I struggled with exactly what makes me so uncomfortable with this sort of policy, I realized that this might deserve a little more long-form discussion than Facebook really allows for.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with a professor warning before students encounter material that may be upsetting. I’d certainly argue that it could well be considered common courtesy, and could easily be included in a list of best practices. Giving people an opportunity to brace themselves before encountering distressing material can be helpful. But there is a wide gap between a recommended practice and an institutional policy.  By endorsing “trigger warned syllabi” as a matter of policy, universities open themselves up to attacks for making people uncomfortable– which I would argue is inherently part of what higher education is supposed to do.

Tressie McMillan Cottom has written an (unsurprisingly) brilliant piece about this problematic situation: as she puts it,

…the ‘student-customer’ movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

I think this is a very astute observation, and accurate. I think that “trigger warnings” on syllabi are likely to suppress resistance to dominant/oppressive discourses. But I’d like to push into the issue a bit more, specifically from the point of view of a historian.

I would argue that the things that are deemed worthy of trigger warnings are the very stuff of history. Rape, genocide, racism, oppression, enslavement, violence, terrorism, death, destruction… Without the ability to discuss these issues, and to do so openly and honestly, the work of history, and especially of a history professor, is essentially pointless. And adopting a policy that opens one up to reprimand or worse if one should forget to give a “trigger warning” each time you touch on these issues will do nothing but stifle and suppress professors from the important work of teaching their students about history.

When I, as a graduate student, consider a list of dream courses that I would love to teach: a historical survey through the lens of whiteness studies, a course on racial images in early 20th century American media, a class dealing with the lives of Black Americans in the North between 1880 and 1930… any of these classes would need a trigger warning over pretty much the entire syllabus. You might as well just write “Trigger Warning: History Ahead” at the top of the syllabus and be done with it. I literally cannot imagine a single session of these classes going on without a trigger warning proceeding the class, as the very material being discussed throughout is by nature inherently upsetting and problematic.


This goes beyond simple concerns about teaching controversial topics, however. Part of what I find most problematic about such policies is that they would make instructors nervous about using some of the most powerful teaching tools they have.

A lot of the language around what needs a trigger warning deal with issues of verisimilitude. The Geek Girl Wiki advises to give trigger warnings especially when descriptions are “graphic” or “extensive,” as well as “depictions, especially lengthy or psychologically realistic ones” of upsetting events or the psychological effects thereof. Likewise, a student statement opposing a piece of public sculpture at Wellesley made a point of singling out verisimilitude as part of what makes the sculpture objectionable: “The highly lifelike sculpture has become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community.” (Emphasis mine.)

It is precisely this correlation between what is most similar to reality and what is most triggering that makes me supremely leery of institutional trigger warning requirements. Because if you talk to people who are not historians but have really been affected by a history class or a history teacher, it is often that class or instructor exposed them to primary sources and accounts that are among the most triggering things possible: lynching photos, accounts of holocaust survivors, slave narratives, etc…

Alison Landsberg, in Prosthetic Memory, discusses how in public history, exhibits can be designed in such a way to help create “prosthetic memories,”  to “produce empathy and social responsibility as well as political alliances that transcend race, class, and gender.” These primary sources, properly contextualized in a classroom environment, can have the same effect: exposure to others’ traumas can encourage empathy and social responsibility, can make us see things beyond the limitations of our own identities, ideologies, and subject positions.

I would like to reiterate, again, that there is never anything wrong with warning people that class material might get a little difficult, that you might be exposed to problematic, upsetting, or triggering materials. But a policy that requires such disclosure in advance of every potentially triggering situation could have a chilling effect on the History classroom, and  in such an environment, the materials that would be most likely to be avoided would be precisely the stuff that serves to create these empathetic connections.

Of course, empathy is the very reason we issue a trigger warning in the first place. And that’s why verisimilitude is so problematic. But– I almost hate to say it– I am much more worried about a whole classroom not being exposed to the object, to them not having the opportunity for that moment of empathy, than one student’s legitimate pain at that moment of empathetic self-identification.

Not because that student’s pain is not important, not because we shouldn’t be sensitive to it, but because if we create rules and policies around it, if we start standardizing how we handle these things, instructors will be less comfortable using them as teaching tools. And frankly, I feel that students are helped more at the end of the day by an environment where more people are likely to be empathetic and understanding of their experiences than they are by a school that never unsettles their feelings.

So yes, feel free to give trigger warnings to your classes if the upcoming material might be difficult. It may well mean the world to someone, and it’s not difficult to do. Continue to be empathetic to your students, to encourage them to talk to you one on one or in class, and to work with them if they have issues regarding materials in the course. But please, let’s not make policy out of it. It just doesn’t seem the tactic for building a more empathetic, better tomorrow.