Atomic Triggers

19 Aug


Note: Stemming from further useful discussions on social media, I’ve added some additional comment at the end of this piece. The original post remains unchanged.

Recent discussions about ‘trigger warnings’ in higher education have been all over the place, resulting in a predictable mishmash of reasoned argument, straw men, and pointless tosh. Rather than boringly attempt to give yet another take on the issue as a whole, I’d like to address how I see this intersecting with my own teaching of nuclear history. I’d also like to add my support for the term ‘content warning‘ in this context (the linked article usefully discusses this).

By it’s very nature, my Nuclear Cold War course involves some disturbing themes, images, and ideas. From photographs of the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, through the bleak awfulness of the Strath Report, to the profoundly disturbing imagery of Threads, there’s a lot that can upset, anger, or distress.

I’ve chosen to approach these issues in different ways. When first planning the course last year, I toyed with the idea of conducting screenings of The War Game and Threads. After sober reflection, I decided not to go down this road. Not because there isn’t value in seeing these powerful films on a big screen, but more out of consideration for the feelings of my students. We never know how we will react to certain things that appear on screen. We could be perfectly blase about visions of nuclear destruction, but be deeply affected by a following image of individuals psychologically damaged by the attack (images used to powerful and pointed effect in The War Game).

Beyond visual representations of nuclear warfare and its aftermath, textual documents can also contain ideas that have the capacity to disturb. Talk of megadeaths, massive retaliation, firestorms, the breakdown of society, and mutual assured destruction can have the most unexpected effects. I distinctly recall my own sense of dread and horror when I first read the Strath Report. The simple, unvarnished, bureaucratic language was both bland and shocking at the same time. Indeed, students who took the course commented how affecting and memorable this document proved to be.

In terms of warning students about this kind of content, I find myself torn between a desire to avoid causing unnecessary upset and a pedagogical desire to demonstrate how shocking the nuclear Cold War could be. To this end, I have attempted to tread the line by making students aware of disturbing content, while encouraging them to engage as fully as possible with it. Many students – for their own very good reasons – could not watch all of Threads. The fact that they were unable to get through the film is useful in its own way. It allows an exploration of the issues raised by such a film (and nuclear issues more widely) and whether or not it is legitimate to deploy those issues in the service of a position or cause.

The purpose of the Nuclear Cold War is not to upset or disturb. The course exists to encourage historical understanding of nuclear weapons, their role in political, social, and cultural change, the ways in which people all round the world responded to them. By the very nature of the subject, it impinges on some of the darkest aspects of the mid to late twentieth century and causes us to confront the possibility of Armageddon. It may at times be shocking, but I would hope that through a considerate approach, such shocks would not be harmful.

Edit (10.20am, 20/08/15): In response to a comment on Google+ by my good friend and thoughtful commentator Morgan Davie, I wrote the following. It does contain spoilers about Threads and discusses the sexual violence that appears towards the end of the film.

I keep returning to Threads as a useful example. For those who haven’t seen the film, spoilers  and content warnings ahead.

Towards the end of the film, there are two moments that could have very real effects on individual students. Jane, a young girl born after the nuclear attack (her mother, Ruth, was pregnant at the time of the attack) is raped by a young man (this takes places about 15 years after the nuclear strike). If it isn’t rape (I would suggest it is), then at the very least it is violent sex in a society so brutalised by the aftereffects of nuclear war that consent is a blurred and barely thought about concept.

At the end of the film, Jane gives birth. It is not shown on screen, but from Jane’s reaction, it is obvious that the baby is either badly deformed or stillborn (I have always tended towards the believing the former to be the case).

Both of these moments in the film are gut wrenchingly powerful and the subject matter they depict could very easily (situation of the film not withstanding) replicate the lived experiences of someone in the class. My thinking is: why would you not want to guard against further traumatising someone by subjecting them to this imagery?

I find myself in a tricky position with this overall. History is often about studying the very worst parts of the human experience. If we shy away from this, do we not diminish our historical understanding? At this stage, I really don’t know. My aim is for my classes to be educative, enjoyable experiences for students, where they can share interpretations and ideas in a safe environment. That doesn’t rule out vigorous debate, the cut and thrust of argument, or the chance of having those ideas challenged. But, the argument that says students are becoming too coddled does neither teachers nor students any good at all. After all, the classroom should not be the place where you are forced to revisit past traumas, especially in an unexpected fashion.

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