Rethinking Trigger Warnings – David Sedaris and This American Life

[Content Note: Ableist Speech including use of the “r-word.” Later, I quote a passage from Huckleberry Finn that contains the n-word, not spelled out.]

This post works with a 1996 piece from David Sedaris and This American Life that contains terrible depictions of the intellectually disabled. It was re-broadcast in 2013. I’d like to see content notes on this episode. Here are my questions.

Can the trigger warning open up conversation, preserve texts that contain prejudicial language, and be a pathway to communication? When something from the past contains speech that now is widely deemed offensive, what do we do? I argue that the content note or trigger warning is a pathway towards preserving dialogue, preserving material, as it offers a middle ground between banning and shrugging.

The post is long, but you can just go read the storify of about 12 tweets that summarized the whole thing, with my conversation partner David quoted with permission.

For those just joining me …

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for CNN about an episode of This American Life featuring Wyatt Cenac. He compared a drug episode to having adult-onset Down syndrome, which I didn’t like for reasons I explain. To my surprise, we connected over Twitter, then talked for a long time on the phone (summarized at link). I came away thinking that he’s an enormously thoughtful person about comedy, discourse, prejudice, and representation. He’s now, actually, a guy I hope I could go to first to ask for smart thoughts about the complexities of humor. I hope he still takes my emails when this kind of thing comes up again (as it will).

One of the things I argued in the piece is that perhaps we, in the disability community, focus too much on the r-word over the issues of representation that such language reflects. I’m calling for a broader engagement on such questions beyond the single word. So, naturally, here’s a piece about the r-word.

The next day, another father wrote me about his experience in 2013 hearing a re-broadcast of the 1996 “The Santaland Diaries,” the enormously successful radio adaption of David Sedaris’ tale of being an elf at Santa-land. It’s a story of loathing for others and self, and includes this section:

At noon, a large group of retarded people came to visit Santa and passed me on my little island. These people were profoundly retarded. They were rolling their eyes and wagging their tongues and staggering towards Santa. It was a large group of retarded people and, after seeing them for 15 minutes, I could not begin to guess where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began. Everyone looks retarded once you’ve set your mind to it.

Here are a few opening points.

First: this is MUCH WORSE than Cenac’s joke. Cenac knew his story required explanation, tried to provide it in a way that explained he knew there was no such thing as adult-onset Down syndrome. He wanted to be true to his experience with pot, the actual words he thought at the time, without offending … well … me and those like me. What was interesting to me was that, as a listener and parent of a child with Down syndrome, the explanation failed to change the meaning of the bit. I wrote about it because I think these gray areas, these complexities, are exactly where we need to explore. If he had just made a lot of r-word jokes, there would have been no story there other than: Comedian offends to try and get a laugh. And that’s not a story.

My question for the CNN piece was how Gervais’ “it’s not about disability” or Cenac’s “I know this is not how Down syndrome works” play into the world of disability and representation. Although I regret that Cenac got a lot of grief on twitter over it (and called for it to stop), and I wish we had been able to speak before hand, I stand by my experience as a listener to the bit. I also accept Cenac’s articulation of his intentions and find them reasonable. I think just a shade more context, a few more minutes of time, something, might have really changed the nature of that story.

But in Santaland, Sedaris is deliberately using this kind of language in order to say, ultimately, that New Yorkers at Santaland all seem retarded to him. He is using the most stereotypical descriptions possible in order to get that laugh. Rolling eyes. Wagging tongues.

Second: This was recorded in 1996 and written some time before. The word “retard” was already objectionable then, but had not achieved the kind of wide-spread cultural rejection as it had by 2013. We have made progress. In 1996, it was not reasonable for a parent to expect to avoid the r-word altogether. Here, though, I don’t expect to hear someone saying it directly at my son, but rather as the casual self-or-other insult that teens use. And even that is fading generationally. So far, I have only heard it used to describe people with intellectual disabilities directly when voiced by an older person who learned to say “mentally retarded” as the correct, polite, non-insulting language. I rarely correct such cases.

So Sedaris was, to my reading, deliberately mocking the disabled in order to mock New Yorkers. He used a term that had not become a universal pejorative at the time, but I think he recognized the cruelty of the humor because his comedy depends on loathing. Principally, he claims the rhetoric of self-loathing; given that, he can loathe all others with impunity. It’s obviously worked very well for him as a writing strategy.

But let’s give him and Ira Glass the full benefit of the doubt and say that in 1996, no reasonable media personality would have thought this was objectionable. Maybe a little mean, but totally fair game. I hope everyone will agree that in 2013 (or now), no reasonable person would NOT think this is objectionable and offensive. The offense is now evident.

Third: As I recounted in my blog, here’s what the father who heard the re-broadcast in 2013 wrote:

I cannot explain my reaction to hearing this in any other way than to say that I felt like I was punched in the gut. I suddenly could not breathe, I had to pull over the side of the road, I turned off the radio, and then I cried. I cried so hard because I have been waiting for this moment for 6 years. I have been waiting for someone to overtly make a discriminatory comment that shook me to my core.


Moreover, that someone would be triggered like this was predictable. I’m glad I didn’t hear it without warning.

What I asked Ira Glass, in an email that was not answered (I’m a nobody; and since he wouldn’t comment for the CNN piece, he’s certainly not going to spend any time on me for my blog. Busy man, I know), was what obligations the radio host had when presenting material from the past. I wanted to know what kinds of conversations and decisions they made. Whether they would just broadcast a show like this forever, or would it expire someday? How do they make those decisions?

I went back and looked at other issues in the This American Life catalog, which is of course both vast and available online. I just did a search for the word “warning.” I do not claim this is

Here are some interesting sentences:

  • Episode 458 – “Play the Part” – “A warning to listeners that this is a story that’s partly about race, and a racial slur gets used.”
  • Episode 341 – “How to Talk to Kids” – “A warning to listeners, we don’t get very explicit in this discussion, but we do acknowledge that people, and teenagers, have sex.”
  • Episode 404 – “Enemy Camp 2010” – “A quick warning for listeners before we begin. This story acknowledges the existence of sex.”
  • Episode 457 – “What I did for Love” – “A warning, I should say, before we go any further in this story. We’re going to acknowledge the existence of sex between adults. Nothing explicit.”
  • From a Facebook post of theirs last August 11, on pedophilia: “Warning: the article includes some graphic descriptions of abuse.”
  • Episode 119 – “Lockup” –  “A warning before we start. This reading contains material that may not be appropriate for some younger listeners. There is no explicit language or graphic depictions of anything, but it does acknowledge the existence of certain sex acts.”
  • And most interestingly, Episode 531, from just last July (a few weeks ago). First, this intro from Glass on the website:

Hey there, podcast listeners, Ira here. So there’s some cursing in this week’s show, and we’re not going to beep it here on the podcast and internet version of the show. If you prefer a beeped version of our program, like we do on the radio, that’s great. Go to our website,, and you can download it from there.

This thing about not beeping the words is something we’ve tried a few times here on the internet. And we’re not sure how often we should do it, or if we should keep doing it. We would love to hear what you think. If you have an opinion about this, email us at, and it would help us a lot to sort these emails out if you put in the subject header, Beep Yes, or Beep No, in the subject line. OK, Beep Yes or Beep No. I think that’s pretty simple. I think you understand which one goes with which one you feel. I’m not going to say anything more about that. OK. Here is today’s show.

Then Glass says [my emphasis]:

A quick trigger warning, for anybody who needs a trigger warning, that this story does include descriptions of incidents of violence against women.

That’s a fascinating aside, right? At least if you’ve been apart of the whole trigger warning debate (too many links to even start. Just go google it. Here’s something I wrote in which I am opposed to TW policies but say that good teaching requires informing students about content.), this kind of aside shows that the folks at This American Life are, right now, trying to figure out what to do about the triggering material of their show.

Let me go on record again to say, basically, that I am a fan of the show. I don’t listen to all of every episode. But when they get a great story, they do it right – funny, sad, thoughtful, etc. They can be great.

There is no trigger warning on The Santaland Diaries. I’d like to hear from Ira Glass and the other producers whether that might change. What is the process for deciding these things?

One argument against trigger warnings, one I’ve in fact made, is that trauma is so specific that you never can tell what might trigger one person or another. Content notes, therefore, are a better model. You say – here is the content, as best you can, and let people decide as they might. I think, though, that in 2013 it is impossible to listen to that David Sedaris passage and not think – whoa, something is wrong here, maybe we need to warn people.

This is not a new problem. Here’s Huckleberry Finn, chapter 6, the voice of “Pap.”

Here was a free [n-word] there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awful- est old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that [n-word] vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. (6.11)

So that’s pretty complicated to read. But it’s in a great work of literature, it reflects a voice of the time, and anyone who argues that Huck Finn should be banned is, well, wrong. But no one should just have it handed to them without some contextualization, right?

The Santaland Diaries is not Huck Finn. It’s also not a minstrel show, though, in which the premise of the material relies on racism. We don’t broadcast “Little Black Sambo.” We don’t show Disney’s “Song of the South.” We don’t show overtly racist material – material that is about projecting racism – without very good reason in highly specific contexts. We do read Mark Twain.

So where does this leave us?

I do not believe that in 2013 you can broadcast a show with Sedaris’ brand of speech there without a content warning. The trigger was predictable. The problem with such speech is widely known across American culture (and of course beyond). I don’t think you have to cut it – though I would, as the joke is fundamentally, rather than incidentally, demeaning to the disabled.

The trigger warning, therefore, emerges as a pathway towards preserving content, preserving material as its language ages our of the mainstream into the widely and wildly offensive. Because without the trigger warning, well, then I have to advocate that this never be aired again.

Surely more on this to come.

3 Replies to “Rethinking Trigger Warnings – David Sedaris and This American Life”

  1. Unknown says:

    Found your blog via
    I was on TAL's website to look at a transcript and saw that the site still says "Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio…" Well, duh, of course it's produced for the ear. But some of us don't have good ears, and we do need the transcript. I really wish they would recognize that not all of their listeners were born with perfect hearing.

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