Rani Neutill has the pedigree one would hope for of an elite post-doc, teaching elite students at elite universities, and so would be sensitive to the myriad nuances of social justice. And indeed, she is. And yet, she can’t win.
About a year ago I was asked to teach a class about the evolution of the representation of sex throughout American Cinema. I started with the silent film (The Cheat) and ended with Spike Jonze’s disembodied sex in Her. Along the way, I showed a number of sexually graphic films that caused a great deal of controversy.
Mind you, students who took the course should have noted its name, perhaps even read the course description, and so they would be reasonably expected to have a clue what the subject matter of the course might be, right?
Midway through the semester, because of my work in sexual assault prevention, I was asked to fill in for the Director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services at the university.
This was a position for which she was eminently qualified, possessing all the badges of honor necessary to feel the pain of “survivors.”
I didn’t realize that occupying both roles at once would be impossible; failure was inevitable.
Boom. As a teacher, her role was to shake up students’ world views. As an activist, her role was to support “survivors.” But that was only the beginning of her conflict.
I assigned a reading by Linda Williams, a chapter from her book, Screening Sex.It looked in intimate detail at the first blaxploitation film ever made– Melvin Van Peebles’, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (SSBAS). The chapter outlined (with pictures), the plot of the movie and all the sexual acts that were in the film.
When the lights went on and the scene was over, two students left the room in tears. I was perplexed.
Later that day, I had a white female student come to my office hours crying. Between picking up tissues and blowing her nose she said, “I’m doing a minor in African American Studies. How could your first images of black people be that horrible?”
This was, obviously, a fabulous teaching opportunity. Instead of doing so, Neutill tried to rub the student’s tummy with the promise that she would fix the problem.
I told her that I would bring a positive image to the next class to address her concerns. Finally, she smiled.
And it devolved from there. Demands increased, and Neutill acceded to them because she was, if nothing else, sensitive.
It’s not fun to talk about inequality. It’s not fun to talk about slavery. It’s not fun to talk about the complexity of sexual desire. It’s terribly, terribly, uncomfortable. But it was my job as their teacher to navigate through this discomfort. I felt like I handled the class poorly. I had kowtowed too much, so I went to class the next day prepared to break this shit down.
There is no middle ground through which one can navigate when offense, real or imagines, hides under every rock. Say “black” and you offend someone. Say “white” and you offend someone as well, maybe the same person. Say “gray” and you’ve completely forsaken any responsibility for teaching, because it’s not gray. And still, you’ve offended someone. Probably the same person.
For the rest of the semester, I gave trigger warnings before every scene I screened. Every. Single. One. This wasn’t enough. A student came to me and asked that I start sending emails before class outlining exactly which disturbing scenes I would be showing so that I wouldn’t “out” survivors if they had to walk out of class when hearing what I was about to show.
Because the syllabus wasn’t good enough? Because the students couldn’t be bothered to do the reading assigned in advance of class? Yes, but not entirely. Because she was trying to teach to a class of religious converts.
When conversation began in class, a white male student started talking about the scene as one of consent. Four hands shot up. One said, “no—it is clearly not consensual.” Other students concurred. They argued that if someone is in an abusive relationship, they can never consent to sex because they are being manipulated.
This triggered me. I was furious.
There can be no discussion. There can be no learning. The new rules are that things simply are, and the students may not know squat about cinema, but they know the rules. And when their teacher doesn’t, they are happy to switch roles.
I don’t know about trigger warnings outside classes that deal with race, gender and sexuality, but I do know that if you promote trigger warnings in subjects that are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, you’re basically promoting a culture of extreme privilege, cause I’m pretty sure that the trans women who are being murdered weekly, the black men who are victims of police brutality daily, and the neighborhoods in America that are plagued by everyday violence, aren’t given any trigger warnings. Let’s be honest: life is a trigger.
Sit down, Rani Neutill. I have something to tell you and it’s going to make you sad. Much as I feel your pain, this is an inherent irreconcilable conflict, and you not only feed it, but are very much a part of the problem. It’s not just that you acquiesce to the demands of your SJW charges, but that you, like them, perpetuate the unreasonable expectation that there can be thoughtful discussion while never offending anyone.
So you have your sacred cow, rape “survivors.” I put “survivors” in quotes because they’re not survivors. People who survive a bout with death are survivors. Otherwise, they are at worst victims. Words have meanings. And before “supporting” anyone, it behooves you to recognize that just because someone dons the mantle of victimhood doesn’t make them a victim.
But your final paragraph, much as it makes a point, is an indulgence in whataboutery. I know, I just learned the word too. It can be used to reflect a valid logical fallacy, deflecting attention from one wrong by responding with another, but it’s now being used for a different purpose, and you just stepped into a heaping pile of it.
Comparing the hurt feelz, what SJWs call “lived experiences,” with actual harms like a bullet from a cop’s gun that finds its way into an unarmed black guy’s body, diminishes the SJW’s pain. You’re not allowed to diminish anyone’s feelings. Not only do you know this already, but you believe it.
Sexual assault survivor support is about empowerment. The model says, “Hey! It’s not for you to tell the survivor what happened to them; that’s their story, they know, don’t fucking label it.” What these students were essentially doing was stripping every person in an abusive relationship of all their agency. They were telling every survivor that they were raped, even when the survivor may have wanted to have sex with their abuser. They were claiming god like knowledge of every sexual encounter. And they were only 20. If that.
So it’s wrong when they do it, but cool when you do it?
I don’t have the answers. Hell, I gave up on the whole thing. This was the last straw for me. I didn’t know the answers but I knew this was a crisis. Colleges are the new helicopter parents, places where the quest for emotional safety and psychic healing leads not to learning, but regression.
But you do have the answers. You know you do. You just don’t like them, because they require you to either be a hypocrite or the person you can’t bear to be because it’s contrary to every SJW impulse you possess.
Yes, life comes without trigger warnings. To have real discussion, people will be offended. There is no way around it. Your choice is to teach a course in reality or waste the class’ time in SJW fantasy. But even then, as you already learned, you won’t win because there is no fantasy perfect enough that it won’t offend somebody.