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A Tool for Resistance?: Trigger Warnings and Reframing the Capitalist Gaze

This blog post is thanks in large part to conversations with my colleague, Nicole Stevens, as well as conversations which took place in my Contemporary Religious Movements in Global Contexts course.

In case you haven’t been following it in the news, this week the contentious murder trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police offer who infamously knelt upon the neck of George Floyd for an alarming nine minutes in an act of “restraint,” continues on at the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. The trial comes in the wake of numerous video recordings of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he says repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.”

Many may remember that these videos made the rounds on popular social media platforms, shared again and again primarily in the hopes of calling attention to systemic racism and police brutality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the videos sparked widespread outrage which led to multiple (primarily peaceful) protests spearheaded by leaders and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement.

a photo of peaceful protestors at a black lives matter rally
“Black Lives Matter” by seikoesquepayne is licensed under CC BY 2.0

But, you might be asking, why is any of this interesting for the scholar of religion?

For me, at least, the momentum with which the video depicting the violence of Floyd’s murder spread reminds me of two other events that are most relevant to those of us who engage in the academic study of religion—namely, the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the U.S. and the viral videos (now mostly removed) of ISIS beheading international journalists. What connects these events together, in my mind, is the way in which videos of violence are disseminated across various media, sometimes repeatedly across many years (such as in annual remembrance of the 9/11 attacks) and often without any regard for the victims who have already lived through and experienced the violence—in some cases, first-hand.

9/11 Memorial - two blue lights shine where the World Trade Center towers once stood
“World Trade Center 9/11/01 attack memorial photo” by cattias.photos is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In his book Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer usefully redescribes acts of terror such as the 9/11 attacks and the ISIS beheadings as “performance violence” (153-157). These acts of violence, Juergensmeyer contends, “are not tactics directed toward an immediate, earthly, or strategic goal, but dramatic events intended to impress for their symbolic significance” (155; original emphasis). In other words, what separates acts of terror out from other forms of violence is that such acts are intended to be spectacular, i.e., to function like a spectacle. Such acts are meant to draw you in. They capitalize (quite literally) on the morbid sense of attraction we feel to acts of exceptional violence—that feeling we get in our gut of not being able to look away.

Though George Floyd’s murder is not being described as an act of terror (which raises interesting questions about what kinds of people are allowed to both perform and experience terror—but that’s a question for a separate blog post), the viral sharing of the videos of his death may be said to be functioning in much the same way, relying on that feeling of morbid attraction to force viewers into experiencing that trauma first-hand and to communicate the horror of police violence toward black bodies.

I’m not suggesting here that people who share such videos are similar to terrorists in any way. What I am suggesting is that the viral sharing of these videos plays into the same kind of heightened spectacle of violence that acts of terror do. For these videos to have an impact, they rely on the naturalized feeling of attraction—the seeming inability to look away—to evoke an emotional response, especially anger, in the viewer.

I think, then, that if this feeling of attraction has become so naturalized, providing trigger warnings before displaying such videos—far from “coddling” viewers, as the exhausted critique goes—serves as a kind of tool of resistance. By quite literally reverting the viewers eyes away from such acts, by asserting that we don’t need to give into the natural morbid urge to look, we in fact reframe the entire narrative of violence-as-spectacle. Violence, especially in cases of acts of terrorism, rely on the naturalized notion of such actions as a commodity for consumption. If we refuse to consume it, if we assert that it’s okay to look away, not only do we avoid causing repeated second-hand trauma (in the psychological sense) to viewers, but we also push back against the utility of violence by refusing to attribute to it further spectacular value.

Indeed, the peaceful protests that were launched in response to Floyd’s murder function in much the same way as I imagine trigger warnings to function—as a tool of resistance which forces violence to feel unnatural by reverting our gazes away from violence and toward peace. We therefore can (and perhaps should) rethink trigger warnings as a useful tool through which we can begin to question the naturalized assumption of violence as a commodity for consumption in our increasingly capitalist (and capitalized) reality.

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