Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings

Some Thoughts on Trigger Warnings April 1, 2015

The latest thinkpiece that’s consumed the internet is an editorial by Judith Shulevitz about trigger warnings. A trigger warning, if you don’t know, is a warning label intended to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s meant to give advance warning of material they might find distressing so that they can avoid it and keep from suffering a flashback, panic attack or other recurrence of their trauma. It’s become a popular concept on college campuses, such as at UC-Santa Barbara, where student leaders passed a resolution calling for mandatory trigger warnings on class curricula.

The problem, according to Shulevitz, is that trigger warnings have proliferated on some campuses beyond reason. She cites several examples of activists calling for dorms, classrooms and even academic debates to be converted into “safe spaces” guaranteed not to contain potentially triggering material, which she calls “self-infantilization”.

While some of the examples she cites do seem excessive, I want to stress that I’m not against reasonable accommodation for trauma survivors. If a class contains explicit violent or sexual imagery, it would only be ethical for the professor to warn students in advance. This is no different from how TV, movies, video games and music have content ratings; it lets people make an informed choice on whether to participate. (As a more specifically academic example, most biology classes let students opt out of animal dissection and do an alternative assignment.)

Some of the arguments commonly made against trigger warnings don’t hold water. One I’ve often heard is that the wider world doesn’t come labeled with trigger warnings, and rather than let survivors retreat into a bubble, we should help them toughen up and learn to cope so that they’re not hampered for life by unresolved trauma. Even if the thrust of that point is true, no one should be ambushed with potentially trauma-inducing material; no one has the responsibility or the right to be someone else’s surprise therapist. Working through an emotional wound is desirable, but it should be done with consent, in a safe and controlled setting.

However, I think there are some arguments that are harder to dismiss. One of them is this: What isn’t a trigger?

A person who’s lived through something intensely frightening or harmful – a rape survivor, say, or a combat veteran – might be triggered by the abstract concepts of violence or violation. But PTSD doesn’t always follow predictable rules. The brain can just as well seize on some small, seemingly irrelevant detail of the experience – a scent, an object present in the background, a bodily posture – and make that the trigger that precipitates a traumatic flashback.

Shulevitz’s article mentioned a safe space set up for a debate at Brown University, a room decorated with imagery intended to be soothing and calming, such as, among other things, “a video of frolicking puppies”. But I have a dear friend who has a severe phobia of dogs, because of a childhood incident where she was bitten by a stray. That safe space wouldn’t have felt so safe for her!

This underscores the point that anything can be a trigger for someone. Trying to enumerate them all – every image or idea that could upset anyone – would be impossible and pointless; like the map that’s so detailed it’s the same size as the territory it maps. Even a trigger warning itself can be triggering to some people.

For dedicated therapeutic spaces, or forums that are devoted to people working through a specific kind of mental or emotional problem together, trigger warnings are probably a good protection. But in an open, general-purpose environment like a college, it’s hard for me to see how they could be put in place consistently or fairly.

More, the point is well-taken that the purposes of a safe space and of a university are, in a sense, in conflict. The purpose of a safe space is to let survivors recuperate and heal without having to confront anything that would cause them further suffering and distress. But a good liberal education will necessarily expose students to ideas that are difficult or upsetting. It will challenge their assumptions, present hard truths about human nature and the world. A classroom that was guaranteed to present no disturbing material would be no classroom at all.

If taken too far, trigger warnings can bleed into suppressing any idea that’s distressing or upsetting. Shulevitz’s article cites a few examples, especially that debate about rape culture at Brown where one student feared that the mere presence of a contrary viewpoint “could serve to invalidate people’s experiences”. There’s also this comment on the Daily Nous, a philosophy blog, on an article that’s generally critical of Shulevitz’s editorial:

I have had a student tell me that she couldn’t participate in a unit on sexual violence because she didn’t feel safe. This was a student who had read the blanket warning on my syllabus. She wanted either to be excused from class for several weeks or for me to shut down students who expressed their views in a way she found disrespectful. Well, one person’s vigorous defense of a position may be another person’s dismissive writing off. In the end, I couldn’t give the student what she wanted, I.e., a safe space, and it was clear that she resented me for it.

Again, I’m not against reasonable accommodation, but it would be unfair to limit everyone’s ability to view difficult subject matter or debate controversial ideas for the sake of one person. If that material is an integral part of the curriculum, then that person would probably be better off choosing some other line of study. For example, my friend with the dog phobia probably shouldn’t apply to veterinary school.

I’m not claiming that trigger warnings put the First Amendment in grave peril, or that a pall of suffocating political correctness is descending on colleges all across the country. If anything, a little more sensitivity and moral consciousness would be welcome on campuses, given the serious ongoing problem of rape and sexual assault. But even the best-intentioned effort to safeguard survivors needs to be balanced with a healthy respect for free speech and open debate.

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