So there’s been a little hoo-ha in the press this week about a trigger warning for archaeology students at UCL. I posted about trigger warnings and why they are important on my old blog- you can read that post here, it’s one of the last ones I did over there and one I’m still proud of. Because one major reason that trigger warnings matter (and this a point that the Spectator article missed) applies whether you choose to act on them or not. They let you know that your feelings are ok, that you are in a place where nobody will laugh or sneer at you for feeling them, unlike oh, I dunno, most of the internet below the comments line for starters. That is so important in an educational environment. So important. People need to feel supported and safe in order to learn. They need to feel free to express their feelings and responses to material culture (in our discipline) without fear of judgement by peers or by staff.
And let me say this here: skeletal material is scary. Can you look into the face of a victim of genocide and not feel saddened, frightened, worried? What if you are someone from a diaspora linked to that community? Are those feelings more intense? Do they mean you are worried about attending a class, nervous about your visible reactions in front of new friends and new mentors? It is essential that you know that those feelings are acceptable, that you can bring them to your lecturer and say: this is what I felt, and why I wasn’t there. Equally, that you know you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. You can walk away and process by yourself what you have seen and how it made you feel.
Looking into the empty eye sockets of a long gone person, touching skeletal remains, gently laying them out on a table, is an emotional experience. Even when you don’t have a connection to the body you are touching or looking at, this aspect of archaeological practice changes you permanently. You cannot go back to who you were before. I know I was apprehensive about doing this. I know I felt uncomfortable, freaked out. I know that I considered not doing archaeology as a teenager as I was so unnerved by the prospect of dealing with human remains. That trigger warning would have reassured me that these feelings were normal, that they were shared, that I was not alone.
I personally feel that these feelings are a mark of respect, in their own way. They come from an awareness that these are not things, they are people. The trigger warning should act as a reminder of the need for that respect: for the remains themselves, and for fellow students. If you don’t think that’s important, I ask if you would be happy for the femur of your relative to have an expletive written on it in biro, something I saw on a specimen in one of my osteoarchaeology classes and was deeply distressed by. Whether reassuring the nervous or ensuring the respect of the brash, trigger warnings are about acceptable behaviour. It is absolutely acceptable to be frightened by skeletal remains. It is absolutely not acceptable to make light of or abuse them.
To end with a Ferranteism: trigger warnings are not just for those who leave, but for those who stay, too.