The Rest of the World Is Laughing at Our Debate Over “Trigger Warnings”

Chris Rock did a bit years ago where he talked about how we have so much food in this country that we actually have the luxury of being able to claim we’re allergic to some of it. There are people living in underdeveloped countries who would gladly eat out of our dumpsters and here we are casually excising certain items from our diet because they make our tummy hurt. “You think anybody in Rwanda’s got a fucking lactose intolerance?” Rock chastised, to laughter and applause.

Granted, each person’s troubles are his or her own, but sometimes it’s still a good idea to look outside our own private bubble in an effort to give our gripes some perspective, even if that bubble happens to be the size of the United States. While many Americans face very real issues in their day-to-day lives, overall we’ve still got it a hell of a lot better than the millions living in underdeveloped or war-torn regions of the world. There’s a reason a full-on internet meme is devoted to the notion of “First World Problems.” For a good number of us, the crises we obsess over are in reality little more than inconveniences — especially when you consider the bigger picture.

Maybe this is why it’s interesting to read an outsider’s take on our culture’s current debate over “trigger warnings.” You know what trigger warnings are by now so I’m not going to make your head hurt any more than absolutely necessary by rehashing the battle over these ridiculous things. Suffice it to say, they’re the latest effort to bring political correctness back into the mainstream by essentially childproofing the collegiate experience in deference to those who are too sensitive to even hear about certain subjects.

In an opinion column currently running over at Al Jazeera America, British writer Ruth Fowler dissects the debate but makes no pretense of being objective about the whole thing. She calls trigger warnings an “indulgent American impulse,” and while her piece sometimes does come off as equally indulgent and predictably self-righteous, her overall point about trigger warnings and the way people with real problems throughout the world would see them is a worthwhile one.

It’s hard to feel any sympathy for a student discreetly taking a professor aside to discuss the content of the assigned reading and its impact on the psyche after you’ve watched a bunch of Afghans twitch slightly at yet another bomb and keep going because they have very little else available to them: no therapy, no shrink, no Xanax, no vociferous student union caring about their feelings, no professor who might carefully comb a reading list for potential triggers. It’s hard not to think that the desire for trigger warnings isn’t simply evidence of a younger generation’s need to “toughen up,” but yet another manifestation of the very American desire to limit one’s experience to “pleasant” things rather than fully understanding the world around us…

It got me thinking: Was trauma just shorthand for “not getting what you want”? Feeling inconvenience in an affluent, convenient society? Or is it really possible that the entire nation is on the verge of a breakdown because of something so dark and sordid and painful in its past, that even the relatively innocuous Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” has the ability to trigger it?

Fowler essentially puts it like this: If people who live under the constant threat of being blown up in the street aren’t wearing a PTSD diagnosis around their necks and asking everyone they come into contact with to handle them with kid gloves because of it, some relatively well-off American college student has no legitimate reason to.

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  • Mikeyoung6

    The world is laughing at the US about a lot of things about now.

  • Sabyen91

    I think trigger warnings are a bit overdone but her whole point is a fallacy. It is exactly the same as the Republicans claiming being poor in the US is no big deal because you don’t see them with distended bellies and flies buzzing around their heads. They have refrigerators! It is a crap argument.

    • Kim Jones

      trigger warnings are for pusays. More lib BS.

  • la bibliotequetress

    Sorry, long post-
    The first trigger warnings I saw online were right after the Boston Phoenix broke the story on children being sexually abused by priests. This was in the late ’90s or early 2000s. The warnings were on sites like SNAP (I cannot remember if SNAP itself had them) and made perfect sense– molestation victims were going to these blogs and chatrooms to find legal help, therapists, and support, often older adults doing so for the first time in their lives; given the nature of chat room design at that time, threads could very quickly and TWs made sense.

    The next time I saw them was around 2005, in a few blogs with a feminist/POC/LGBT demographic and on sites for Iraq & Afghanistan vets. On those blogs, TWs filled the same role as “safe spaces” in the ’70s and ’80s, where people who had PTSD from assault– violent gaybashing, rape, and, unfortunately, so on– could avoid stumbling onto something that would trigger the memory of the assault. This could allow them to participate in something that PTSD had left them afraid to do, such as attending a dance or an open mike comedy night.
    These TWs that began back then allowed people who were sharing space with PTSD survivors to have conversations that could cause the survivors pain. TWs did not exist to shut people up, but as a courtesy warning: If you find conversations about Topic X can debilitate or hurt you, avoid this post/thread. Used this way, it allows people write more freely more than they might if they were worrying about hurting online friends & acquaintances.

    Trigger warnings were not about making the whole world a safe happy place. They weren’t on every single blog, and did not need to be. They did not address every single potentially painful situation, only the worst for their specific demographic(s).

    Despite having some bad shit in my history, I have never needed trigger warnings myself. I can understand, though, why someone who did have problems would want a few places to get away from triggers. Rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike of life, as it were.

    I’m not surprised that a few people have taken a good and useful idea and twisted it. That is usually what happens to good and useful ideas. I assume that someone who cannot read “Things Fall Apart” without a warning also cannot get a degree in literature or English (or history or political science, if it comes to that). Too much writing on too many potentially painful topics. I also assume that the number of people who are debilitated, genuinely debilitated, by reading Achebe is very small. More people may be bothered, but we all have to learn to live with being bothered. TWs shouldn’t be about wrapping the planet in bubble wrap.

    The student who cannot read Achebe obviously cannot take a job as a book reviewer, or in a publishing house, or in any of the jobs typically requiring an English major. Fine. They should be assisted *personally.* A few people could suffer PTSD severe enough to make attending certain classes difficult, and the university should be open enough that the student can comfortably let the administration know, maybe even before a problem comes up. I work at a university that accepts a lot of vets, and a lot of students from developing nations who have experiences by age of 18 that would make me crawl behind the sofa and stay there. We would accommodate anyone who approached us because something in a required class was triggering, and if a student has disabilities or issues (**see note below) that prevent some majors from being practical, we guide them to a different one. The fact of the matter is that this is rare. Big blanket warnings are not only unnecessary, but the drama of it might be so embarrassing as to deter the students who need assistance from seeking it.

    **Note: More likely issues in US universities right now are not TW/triggering problems, but students who– no kidding– want biology or some similar degree but don’t accept verification of the theory of evolution. Such students might be better in, oh, say, Electrical Engineering.

  • UnsaltedSinner

    OT, but this strikes me as kinda silly: “You think anybody in Rwanda’s got a fucking lactose intolerance?”

    Yes, I suspect most of them do. Lactase persistence in adults is rare outside Europe and North America.

    • bbiemeret

      It was a comedian’s stand-up routine, of course it’s silly. The point was that gas, cramps, and other discomforts associated with lactose intolerance are minor compared to malnutrition, and would probably do little to prevent a starving Rwandan from eating, say, a cheese pizza, or an ice cream sundae.

  • Matrim

    I don’t think anyone I know who has triggers would argue that their experience is analogous to a family in Afghanistan being bombed, but the fact that people have it worse somewhere doesn’t make your experience any easier. My friend was once trapped in a situation where she was raped and physically abused repeatedly for years, I challenge anyone to go through that without emotional scars. She has triggers, as do some of my other friends. I fail to see how warning people “hey, there’s some fucked up shit coming” is somehow a great imposition.

    • newsjunkie365

      The thing is, there is no standard list of triggers–it’s different for everyone. An abuse survivor can even be triggered by something mundane that is unique to their personal situation.

      Trying to place a warning for everything under the sun would be comical, and only putting a warning for specific triggers implies that some traumas are worse than others. Don’t get me wrong, there are safe spaces where certain trigger warnings are appropriate. But I don’t think it’s a professor’s duty to have to decide what warrants a trigger warning. Besides, college in part is supposed to prepare you for life, and life is triggering.

    • Aaron Litz

      That isn’t what we are talking about; if there is going to be a graphic depiction or description of rape, then of course there should be a warning for anyone who doesn’t want to see such things, Trigger or not. What the problem is is the recent trend to waaaay overdo it and throw *Trigger Warning* on things that neither require nor deserve such a label.

      What was on that one list of words that someone recommended as requiring Trigger Warnings? Things like the word “Stuff?” That’s the problem we are complaining about.

  • Neddy Merrill

    Social conventions are often (mostly?) silly. See, Downton Abby.

  • Razor

    It’s a lot like Louis CK’s bit where he talks about white people saying “the n-word,” is bullshit, because you’re still saying “nigger” in your own head. You’re making me say it to myself.

    Trigger warnings are the same thing, simply saying “trigger warning” to someone who experienced trauma is going to instantly make them think of their particular “trigger.” Even more ridiculous, Social Justice Warriors™ typically follow it with something like “trigger warning: rape” or “trigger warning: domestic violence,” which to someone who experienced rape or domestic violence, simply reading it will take their brain to that place, so you just triggered them regardless.

    It’s a pointless, bullshit exercise, which sums up extreme liberalism pretty well: doing something with no discernible benefit except it makes us feel better about ourselves.

    • Matrim

      Spoken like someone who doesn’t have a trigger. Most people I know with triggers don’t go off at the mention of rape or the mention of domestic violence, they go off at vivid descriptions or depictions. Your straw man version of triggers is stupid.

      • That River Gal

        I have “triggers”, very serious ones, and a diagnosis of PTSD. No one can know or even predict what will set me off into pain or panic. I don’t expect them to. I don’t need the world to cater to what my damage is. I need to work through and overcome my issues for my own well being and quality of life–not have the world covered in bubble wrap for me. Guess what, I’m getting better and stronger every day.

        I don’t think your tone is helping your point.

      • Razor

        When I was very young, I witnessed my dad collapse and have a seizure, before I knew what a seizure was. At the time, it was a traumatic experience and it is forever etched in my memory, watching my until-then invincible father collapse and shake violently while I was helpless and clueless. To this day, whenever I hear the word “seizure,” I instantly think of that moment. A minor moment in my life, my dad is still alive, but it’s etched in there.

        I’m not saying you instantly curl up in the fetal position and weep, but I imagine anyone who has suffered through something as horrible as a rape would at least have their brain glimpse at that memory just by hearing the word.

        And when people are saying a statue of a man in his underwear is “triggering,” as some college students suggest, it’s clear that the concept of trigger warnings is not just limited to graphic descriptions.

    • Mikeyoung6

      You’re right, but it is fun.

    • Aaron Litz

      Exactly. Just as with the Euphemism Treadmill, at what point does the term *Trigger Warning* become a Trigger itself, because that term encompases ALL POSSIBLE things that may be Triggers? It would actually be even WORSE, because, like the best Horror stories, the actual Triggering element is not seen, but left totally to the brutality of the reader’s imagination.

  • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

    I’ve found that “trigger warning” is often used to attract notice the same way NSFW/NSFL tags are — a way of telling the internet user that something shocking, and therefore exciting, is just a click away.

  • JTalaga

    So someone who is in no way trained in mental health has some opinions about PTSD based on anecdotal evidence. It has all the authority of Rush Limbaugh “refuting” climate change with the argument that it’s cold outside.

    • bbiemeret

      I don’t think this was about the OP’s opinion on PTSD, I think it’s about the futility in sanitizing the world of any and everything that may be a potential trigger for the disorder, and how attempting to doesn’t do anyone any favors.

      • That River Gal

        Agreed, and that’s a great summation.

      • la bibliotequetress

        Well put.

      • JTalaga

        Yes, but that argument still rests on the assumption that she is somehow qualified to talk about stress disorders and their triggers, which she is not. When she says that the Afghans she knew didn’t seem to be suffering from post traumatic stress, she’s assuming that she would know how to diagnose it. That is Jenny McCarthy-level self-importance. When she wonders if “trauma is just shorthand for not getting what you want?” she is summarily dismissing decades of scientific research and clinical experience based on her gut feeling that American millennials are too soft.

        She also has a strangely hostile attitude toward anyone suffering from non-combat related posttraumatic stress, even though the overwhelming majority of PTSD diagnoses are civilians who have never seen a combat zone. No, most people are not going to have flashbacks of childhood abuse from reading “Push,” but a few people might. Is telling them to go to hell really a better response than putting an extra line in your syllabus about it?

        • Jezzer

          I’m sure the Afghans would be helped immensely if they put up signs everywhere saying “Trigger Warning: Bombs.” Problem solved.

        • bbiemeret

          First off, you don’t know what her qualification are, and even if you did, she doesn’t need any to make an observation. She was there, and commented on what she saw, and how she interpreted it. Qualified enough.

          Next, she didn’t say the condition didn’t exist, and she’s not advocating for those who suffer to refuse or deny medical treatment. So, I fail to make the McCarthy connection.

          Lastly, the main point of the article was, since “triggers” are entirely subjective, expecting content creators (read: authors) or providers (read: teachers) to include specific warnings or disclaimers covering anything and everything that may be a potential trigger, is an exercise in futility.

          If you can’t read a book without having a nervous breakdown, maybe you should put the degree on hold, and seek some more intensive therapy first.

      • Aaron Litz

        Expecting the world to censor itself for one’s own personal comfort will quickly lead to one being driven insane with frustration and disappointment.

  • Jason E

    If you read in a high pitched British accent (think Benny Hill) it’s hilarious. Does she know any Americans? Bitch please

  • newsjunkie365

    Agreed that Fowler comes off as self-righteous, but I do agree with her overall point. Life is triggering. You can either live with the risk or hide yourself from the world. No one else should be responsible for protecting one’s psyche.

  • Joy

    I’d be happy to even make the concession she references–for the “student taking the professor aside” maybe that is just fine. A single student–who was raped, let’s say– and was going to have a hard time reading a book with rape scenes in it, to approach the professor and ask for a concession. Fine. But for the professor or the school to warn the entire class, nay, the entire student body in posted syllabi online, or course descriptions, as though every person in that room were ready to start rocking themselves in the fetal position upon reading an intense passage or difficult chapter. We truly have become excruciating as a culture. We need to not stick our head in the sand about these things. I think in general colleges and universities already coddle students way too much. Grade inflation, dumbing down of material, political sanitizing. I would guess it is very rare for a truly traumatized person to not get concessions. There are ADA concessions for all kinds of things, and ombudsman offices to resolve any needed concessions which are not immediately made. For the love of all that is holy and good, please leave literature alone. It is messy and difficult and trying and emotional and uplifting and scary and a million things which make us human. Enough of the paper mache generation we are building. Let them live a little.

    • Jezzer

      Not to mention they’re wanting trigger warnings for every damn thing from fat-shaming to colonialism. They’re defining a trigger as “anything that upsets someone.”

      • conundrum

        Outside of a few clinical situations, the “trigger words” crap is just another passive-agressive attempt to control what other people are allowed to say. The demands for trigger warnings rarely come from an actual sufferer; more often they come from people with a political goal. So we have lots of demands to control trigger words theoretically related to the trauma of rape, but demands to control the trigger words related to the trauma suffered by the parents of a child who died, not so much. Both the pain of rape and the pain of losing a child are life-altering, but no oportuinty to daemonize some group by exploiting the pain of losing a child.

        • ZucchiniBlossom

          Passive aggressive is exactly right.