Trigger Warnings: Not Punching Down

By Annie Julia Wyman

In 2013, I taught my first university course: it was to be just me, then a fourth-year graduate student, and five college juniors in the Harvard English honors program. Some weeks before, a student who’d been assigned to my tutorial approached me at a department reception. “I’m so excited for the class,” she said, “I love comedy.” She told me she was a comedian and an actor. We talked about what we were going to read and watch — Chaplin, Joyce, Nabokov, Rogen, Rock, Glazer and Jacobson, and Kondabolu were all on various drafts of my relatively improvisatory syllabus — and how we were both thrilled to have the chance to combine theory and practice. We’d be reading about laughter and trying to make each other laugh. “It’ll be awkward,” I said, “but eh!”

Surprisingly — to me, at least — my half-joke didn’t hit. Taylor looked at her feet, and then she looked at me. “I wanted to tell you something, which is actually why I came over,” she said. “I can’t laugh.”

“What?” I said. And then, so help me, I laughed.

“Hey,” she said, “um? No.” And then she explained. In the last months she’d had a number of throat surgeries. The more she laughed, the more she’d endanger her vocal chords. Laughing hurt. Plus she might permanently lose her voice.

“Oh,” I said. “Oh.

To be very clear, this is what had happened: I had just mocked a person below me in the power structure — one of the very first students I could really call mine — because of a medical condition.

On the one hand, there wasn’t that much at stake. Like me, Taylor was (and is) a white woman: little apparent potential there for the kind of unintentional damage that can be done when people who occupy very different subject positions talk about the body. But on the other hand, Taylor was (and is) a woman artist who stood to lose the very instrument by which she made her art. If you study comedy, you learn very quickly that people inside and outside the academy understand it as a lesser art; for all sorts of reasons — mostly bad ones — we might feel more sympathy for a painter who lost his sight than we would for a stand-up with nodes on her vocal chords. But what I had done was anathema to my way of being in the world: I love my students and I take the task of teaching funniness — its uses and abuses — pretty seriously.

Good for me, then, that Taylor refused to be offended, at least visibly. She explained precisely what she would need from me and reiterated that she was excited for the course. We came up, impromptu, with a running bit about how she might express her amusement without endangering her vocal chords.

“I dunno,” she said, “jazz hands?”

In the last few months, I’ve thought back on those jazz hands with some frequency. I thought of Taylor, for instance, when last month’s University of Chicago welcome letter denouncing students’ need for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” lit up my Twitter feed. And I thought of Taylor again when the conversation about the Millennials’ supposed need for coddling crystallized however briefly around the novelist Lionel Shriver, who mocked identity politics at a recent writers’ conference in Melbourne at length, and with props. (She later wrote in the New York Times that she meant to defend empathy: we’ll have to disagree as to how much empathy she demonstrated that day.) So much of the conversation didn’t make sense to me, not least because I knew how how bad it felt to hurt my students without meaning to, even when it was just the tiniest slip-up, maybe even an unavoidable mistake.

It may be that a different faculty member might have responded to Taylor differently, with more compassion or at least with more social grace, though I’ve spent seven years in academia and can say definitively that we’re a pretty mixed bag, social grace-wise. But when I read the University of Chicago letter I thought: Why are we so invested in underestimating our kids?

I knew that the University of Chicago administration was, in all likelihood, pushing back against student protestors, who want it to divest from companies whose actions contribute to climate change and to boycott Israeli academic institutions — that Dean Ellison’s letter was a way of blustering past other issues. But there was something about the language of the letter that bothered me, and that made me think of my first teaching experiences: not just Taylor but Miles, Krithika, Matt, Calvin, Gideon, Brian, Rosie, all the jokes they’d told and that I’d told and the knowledge we’d made along the way — including the ugliness that we could look at, safely, and subvert because we were being and learning about what was and wasn’t funny. The lightness, the playfulness that make classrooms into sites of safe experimentation and play — these are the first to vanish when anyone goes a-manifesto’ing.

Granted, my discipline is a fluffy one. I work on comedy — I joke frequently about my literal joke PhD. And — perhaps more significantly — we deal almost exclusively in texts, not images. I’m not a sociologist or a professor of international relations or race theory, so I don’t have to think about whether it might be a good idea to show footage of the murder of black people by white police or surveillance footage of bombings or executions. Then again, because I teach comedy, everything I’ve ever taught might require a trigger warning: Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor is full of incest. David Foster Wallace indulged in misogynistic caricature in almost everything he wrote. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator contains a line I find myself hesitant to type: “First we’ll kill the Jews, and then we’ll kill the rest of the brunettes, too!”

Comic art documents the worst that can be said about any culture at any moment, however, precisely because it wants to subvert that worst-ness. The cognitive mechanism we call “humor” seems to have evolved to keep us from being frightened of what we don’t know so that we can learn from the unexpected. The knock-knock joke may be the only joke there is: all comedy is an encounter between self and other, community and stranger. Comedians differentiate between jokes that punch up, and jokes that punch down: a joke that punches down, that targets someone lower in the power structure, isn’t a joke at all — just snark. Shriver’s donning a sombrero at the end of her speech, for instance, was a bit of unintentionally pathetic kitsch. (She was trying to express some sort of ironical solidarity for a group of white students at Bowdoin College who were punished for a tequila-themed birthday party.) How sad, I thought, that she thinks that’s funny.

By contrast, a joke told and timed well would — while inducing a cringe, while making those in power question instead of reaffirming themselves  — ultimately divert the tension, the fear or the anxiety produced by the unexpected into an expression of welcoming and playfulness — that is, into a genuine, open laugh. That’s what I expect from my students, and why I worry about trigger warnings. You can’t get a joke — you can’t feel its beauty — if you ignore or are forbidden to talk about what is ugly.

All the hot takes and the thinkpieces agree that the trigger warnings we now live with came out of Internet communities, especially those formed by women who had survived sexual violence or who were seeking support for eating disorders. From the domain of the feminine to the domain of the masculine, and then out of any gendered domain into the domain of race: it’s an interesting history, and a heartening one. At least in theory, more testimony of harm should give us hope of more liberation and redress. Trigger warnings — and if you have a better phrase, do share — should in theory be a matter of general thoughtfulness about what to show and when, a means of making those in power more aware of the damage they can do without realizing it.

But recently, administrators and students have taken control out of classrooms out of instructors’ hands. On some campuses, you can’t choose not to use them; more and more concern about academic freedom and freedom of speech has arisen among faculty members. And, from the other side, opponents of identity politics — Shriver most Twitter-stirringly among them — have delighted in cherrypicking examples of extreme political correctness. It’s hard, honestly, not to read things like Shriver’s speech and not go full pedant: fiction writers should be allowed to imagine other identities. Fine. But you don’t get to decide what other people think about their history, their lives, and their suffering. And when a marginalized group reaches out for something usually reserved for its oppressors — a space in which to feel safe, unwatched — that takes energy, and courage, and may just be the polar opposite of lazy.

Worth saying, however, is that artists are certainly free to adopt reactionary positions that will render their work obsolete while they’re still alive. And at a higher level, I do think that the logic of political correctness touches absurdity. Of course it does. Every student of comedy and every working comic (and every extra-funny person like Wittgenstein, who, one might argue, belongs to both categories) — all such persons know that at its outermost limit any logic touches absurdity: the same is true of the logic of “PC culture” or “social justice” or “cultural sensitivity” or “identity politics” or any other set of related terms the left or the right might choose. That’s why we have to run toward the absurd, press towards the other side of it, remember that it represents the furthest edge of what we find intelligible. It can be frightening, or bleak: any edge of any known world is scary. But if we can abide with the absurd, we run a better chance of pulling sense from nonsense. We expand, however incrementally, the limits of our knowledge. We dispel some of our own ignorance. That, to me, is what we gain when we study comedy.

Too often, however, we stop short. We make stupider jokes than we could or should. We get into that old and unsophisticated shouting match about what is and isn’t funny and maybe eventually we’ll just agree that comedy depends on context and thereby let ourselves off the hook. But we could, in fact, resolve that discussion very easily, simply by advancing again the idea that using laughter to grab for power or to stereotype is not comedy: punching down is cruelty, and every culture and literature and text I’ve studied has some way of emphasizing that difference. If we stop laughing at ourselves and at one another, we lose a means of achieving perspective and even experiencing pleasure where it might have otherwise seemed impossible. For me, as an educator but also as a thinking human, that loss would be immeasurable — maybe the saddest thing I know.

Because I do have a funny story of my own about my identity, one that — like many Millennials — I’m only too happy to share. (Or maybe not happy enough; just this week the critic Hilton Als lit gently into Amy Schumer for offering her audiences too little that was her own.)

When I was in elementary school, some of my friends joked that my grandmother, a Japanese woman, had a sideways vagina. And then, pushing things a little further, decided that I had one, too. It was gross stuff. It fucked me up. I never told my mother about it: being stigmatized in this extra-special, intersectional way me feel extra-special hate for being a woman and for other women, too. (The insults were also straight-up confusing: perhaps because we were in Texas, my vagina was also frequently called Mexican.) Later in life, my freshman roommate, who was Vietnamese, told me that I couldn’t come to the first meeting of the Asian American Activities Center even though someone in the Stanford administration had read some form of mine and assigned me an A3C mentor. “Don’t you dare come,” she said. “WHAT,” I thought. “ABSURD. I HAVE SUFFERED. AND YOU ARE MAKING ME SUFFER MORE.” I had. And she was.

But I didn’t say that. The one thing I knew for sure was that I was young and didn’t know a whole lot. What to do? Instead of letting my discomfort push me forward into aggression or anger, I laughed it off, both then and for years afterward. “It was like she thought I was like this huge white person who expects to get a free tour of like basically everyone else’s identity,” I say, and then I make an IRL version of this face:


And more often than not, the people to whom I tell this joke laughs, too, because I am a huge white person and I did grow up in a culture that approves of giving white people access to basically everyone else’s identity.

The point is that laughter got me through the discomfort I felt until I developed the right vocabulary to explain my own identity to myself and other people. I’m not just white — no one is — but I’m white-passing and white-presenting. And I’ve thought and said racist shit, just like everyone else not just in this country but who participates in the global economy, since we were all born into and shaped by and still — no matter how woke we think we are, no matter what race or gender we are — influenced by structural racism. No one lives outside it and no one will until we dismantle it together. But — like everyone — I can work that shit out by thinking and asking questions and making and accepting jokes at my own expense. I aim my punches up, at the part of me that’s most privileged. If I aimed them down, they wouldn’t be either as useful or as funny.

Of course things don’t always work out as well as I describe above. You can punch down without realizing it; you can simply fail to control yourself, if you feel afraid. And I do get the sense with some of my students that their wokeness is important primarily for their personal brand. I often wonder whether comedy — which can dispel basically every other kind of bullshit — can deal with the fact that neoliberal Americans of all races and creeds now eat up what we could think of as revolution commodified, an ideological product designed to make a few people feel as if they are liberated — and, worse, that they are liberating others — precisely so that we continue to consume and be consumed by a system of economic oppression running on all cylinders. I sometimes worry that a world in which every possible form of identity is celebrated precisely so that it can be brought to market is the least funny world but will pass itself off as the funniest — the most fun, the most entertaining, that is, the most distracted and distracting.

Never underestimate the late-capitalist patriarchal ideology machine!!, I like to say in class, waving my hands like a maniac just so that my students know I’m serious enough to act like a maniac but not so serious that they can’t advance their own points of view. And while I’m still working on what comedy can do for us in terms of class consciousness, but I know, at least, that comedy helps them feel both challenged and comfortable at once. And I know that we can also use comic theory as a lens to explore why phrases like “late-capitalist patriarchal ideology machine!!” strike us as funny. Is it because any language can calcify into stiff and meaningless caricature? What happens when a language is not only neutralized but appropriated by people and institutions far from its origin? My Amtrak coffee cup invites me to “experience the taste of a better world.” Subway ads for Pamela Anderson’s new fashion line read, “The Struggle Doesn’t Have To Be Real.” And — through the same process of obsolence and appropriation — the phrases “trigger warning” and “safe space” become so meaningless they can be applied with pretty rigorous logic to men’s rights activists. Do we give up on this language, once it becomes ridiculous? Do we let ourselves laugh at it? Or do we find some other way to talk about justice, since Justice is a clothing brand for tween girls?

But whatever the final outcome of the campus culture debate and the Twitter battles may be, I think we need to remind ourselves and our students — and perhaps administrators most of all — what humanities classrooms are. Like an improv stage or the green world of Shakespeare’s comedies, the seminar room isn’t a safe space. (As many advocates for safe spaces are quick to point out, a safe space is most often a community center or dorm set aside for cultural groups.) A college classroom is instead a space of art; it should represent the real world without being mistaken for it. Gambits, provocations and dissent should be voiced, equally and by maximally diverse participants: there should be giving and taking, teasing and joking in an environment that assumes that each person in the room is fundamentally good. In classrooms we should believe in dismantling systemic and structural oppression, which means, inevitably, assuming a kind of personal innocence even as we talk about personal complicity and the blaring hideousness of most human history. Students — even students who spout off straight-up racist garbage in class — have to have a reason to examine their own most intimate narratives of self.

If we study literature so that we can tell ever more thoughtful and sensitive stories about our world and ourselves — stories that contain evidence of goodness in one form or another, and that teach us how to achieve it — then we study comic literature to destabilize our notions of authority, to question what “good” really is. Jokes invert the world. Disempowered groups gain new power, powerful individuals lose it: so it goes in carnival and ritual insult and festive comedy and on Chappelle’s Show, in Issa Rae’s Insecure, and on Andrew Ti’s comedy podcast Is This Racist?, and in the protest movement Renoir Sucks at Painting, or Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, or in the suitably calm and gentle Canadian series Baroness Von Sketch Show. Someday, we’d realize that we can delight in an increasingly just society: there’s a thing in our brains that releases literal joy — that is, dopamine — at the revelation of new social possibilities. If we took ourselves less seriously, maybe we’d end up with more young humans like Taylor Kay Phillips. On her graduation day in 2015, Taylor delivered a commencement speech. Behind her, rich, famous Natalie Portman was wearing a dress with eggplants on it. But it wasn’t her day.

“Look at our speaker, Natalie Portman,” said Taylor. “She left Harvard and has changed tons of things, playing Anne Boleyn, and Padme, and soon, Jacqueline Kennedy. And, as a woman,” Taylor said, laying her hand on her heart, “I think it’s really inspiring that I can also leave Harvard and have so many opportunities to be a powerful person’s wife.” From Portman, Taylor went on to describe what she liked best about her generation. “Forty-seven percent of us are tolerant of other races and other groups. Forty-seven percent! That is” — and here she pumps her fist — “almost half!”

It’s a risky moment. In the crowd, some people laugh; some people hiss. But that’s how it has to be, I suppose: jokes turn our literal shit into nonliteral comic gold. Comedy is only beautiful because it show us how ugly we can be. It reminds us that we can change our lives: it shows us what we must leave behind.

The phrases “trigger warning” and “safe space” once belonged to a language that enlivened and protected community. Now we’re left with a set of clichés whose a-historical cleanness falls far outside of the messy, tricky ethical and aesthetic education students need and in fact want. Two other undergraduate alumni in the Harvard-joke-people community have been raising money for a mockumentary they’re calling Safe Space: it lampoons both the left and the right. And — not least because comedy is a collective, collaborative form, which may help me answer my own question about class consciousness — they can have the following joke for free. In a country of three million guns, I’m not sure the phrase “trigger warning” is anything but grimly funny. Like anyone who’s seen anyone shot and killed, I can now say sincerely and insincerely that I find it triggering.


Annie Julia Wyman writes nonfiction, criticism, fiction and screenplays. She studies and teaches comedy as a doctoral candidate at Harvard.

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