We recently discussed the inclusion of “trigger warning” as an oppressive term. However, the failure to include such a warning is the basis for a campaign to fire Sonoma State University film Professor Ajay Gehlawat. Gehlawat has opposed such required warnings and later was targeted for failing to include such a warning on an assigned film that depicted as rape scene.
Ghelawat is an expert on international cinema and film theory as it relates to popular culture and cultural identity with a primary emphasis on non-Western cinemas like Bollywood. He screened the documentary “India’s Daughter” which includes a brutal gang rape and murder of a young medical student in India. The movie is celebrated for further exposing patriarchy and chauvinism in India. Indeed, it has been banned in India.
A petition against the professor garnered 1,000 signatures. A Title IX investigation was opened at the university. The petition objects to how Gehlawat taught his class and allegedly did not value or actively denigrated the comments of female students:
Despite the fact that one of his courses was titled “Feminism in Film” his synchronous class was far from a positive feminist environment, in fact many might consider it anti-feminist or mysoginisit in the deepest and most covert ways. After requiring the students to watch traumatic images of women and graphic sexual violence against women- class discussions continued to denigrate women. He focused more on the bodies and sexuality of the women in the films than the content of their minds and character. When female participants would provide their perspectives on the films in the discussion, many times their opinions would be undermined or disregarded altogether. Meanwhile, the male perspectives would be acknowledged and even celebrated.
During Gehlawats class, students experienced sexual discrimination and harassment in many ways. We were required to watch emotionally disturbing films, without trigger warnings, that involved rape, sexual harassment, killing, violence, etc. After we watched these films, we were required to write papers on them and proceed to have 2 hour and 40-minute seminars on the disturbing content. There was no explanation as to why we were learning about this explicit material and how it supported our education. There was absolutely no context for requiring this type of material to be viewed, written about, or discussed in the class.
The treatment of female students is separate from the material assigned in such a claim. The latter issue touches on academic freedom, including the issue of whether trigger warnings are now not just mandatory but grounds for termination if omitted from such assignments or screenings.
The problem with mandatory warnings is that it can prompt sharply differing views on what is considered potentially traumatic or harmful. Is that a question that remains in the judgment of the professor? Moreover, many professors may have objections to trigger warnings, particularly in the arts. Some may view such warnings as either unnecessary or inimical to the experience of observing art.
Cambridge this month faced a different issue of whether to post signage around its Greek and Roman sculpture to explain the appearance of “whiteness.” So professors have reportedly balked about being told to post “content warnings” with lectures and reading materials on the issue. The warning will address a “misleading impression” of the whiteness and “absence of diversity” of the ancient world.