“Trigger warnings,” once a notation on feminist blogs and eating-disorder or sexual-abuse discussion boards, are seeping into online journalism and, as Jenny Jarvie writes in an article for New Republic, onto college campuses.
“Such warnings, which are most commonly applied to discussions about rape, sexual abuse, and mental illness, have appeared on message boards since the early days of the Web,” Jarvie writes. “Some consider them an irksome tic of the blogosphere’s most hypersensitive fringes, and yet they’ve spread from feminist forums and social media to sites as large as the The Huffington Post…
Last week, student leaders at the University of California, Santa Barbara, passed a resolution urging officials to institute mandatory trigger warnings on class syllabi. Professors who present ‘content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ would be required to issue advance alerts and allow students to skip those classes….Warnings have been proposed even for books long considered suitable material for high-schoolers: Last month, a Rutgers University sophomore suggested that an alert for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby say, “TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.”
Jarvie points out that sizeism, slut-shaming, ableism, “small holes” (??) and even people, such as Chris Brown and sex columnist Dan Savage, have been targeted as possible triggers. On pregnancy message boards, posts such as “Trigger warning: I started cramping in my eighth month” are now commonplace. I don’t think the “Where will it end?” question is at all too dramatic to ask at this point.
She continues: “As students introduce them in college newspapers,promotional material for plays, even poetry slams, it’s not inconceivable that they’ll appear at the beginning of film screenings and at the entrance to art exhibits. Will newspapers start applying warnings to articles about rape, murder, and war?”
I considered writing about trigger warnings in January when I saw a story about yet another Urban Outfitters shirt that was offending people, this one made by a company called Depression that makes eponymous tshirts. Those who were outraged took to Twitter to accuse Urbo of exploiting mental illness and said the shirts could be “triggering” to someone suffering from depression. Weren’t trigger warnings supposed to be for graphic descriptions of rape or a video of a horrible accident? For God’s sake, a single word can be a trigger now?
But I waited too long to write about it, and Jarvie, in her New Republic story, said just about everything I would want to say about trigger warnings.
Until I read Salon’s reaction to it, that is.
In a story with the subhead “What the Critics Are Missing,” Katie McDonough writes, “Jarvie may be correct to point out that the use of trigger warnings has gained some traction (though I think she overstates quite how much) in college classrooms and certain media outlets, but the use of such labels is still a relatively niche phenomenon. She’s also right to be wary of schools willing to use trigger warnings as a blunt instrument to stop certain texts from being taught.
“But the bigger truth, and what Jarvie doesn’t really grapple with in her piece, is that trigger warnings are an imperfect but sometimes necessary band-aid on the open and gaping wounds plaguing college campuses — rampant sexual violence, for starters. Singling out trigger warnings as the greater problem in need of addressing is, perhaps, missing the point.”
Jarvie did not at all miss the point, however, because she was making an entirely different point: Her story is about trigger warnings being imposed on college professors who would be required, some students have proposed, not to present any material in their classrooms without arbitrarily sufficient sensitivity labels, not about the problem of sexual violence on college campuses. To suggest that trigger warnings should be considered some sort of blanket apology to anyone who has experienced a trauma and happens to be attending that college goes against any reasonable argument people have made in favor of trigger warnings being necessary to mitigate genuine emotional harm.
McDonough continues to trivialize the trigger labels she’s trying to defend, writing, “Sexual violence on college campuses is an issue with unprecedented visibility right now, which could explain why the conversation about the warnings’ use in classrooms is getting attention as well. Students who advocate for these warnings may see them as a nod toward compassion and accountability in a campus environment (and culture, in general) that could use a lot more of both — and they’re very likely correct in this.”
McDonough’s defense of campus trigger warnings, in my opinion, shows exactly why they are a bad idea. Within hours of reading about student efforts to implement them at UC Santa Barbara, Rutgers and Oberlin, she endorses them as a nicety that school administrators should provide as a preemptive salve for society’s ills.
And aside from the ideological problems with it, the practical implementation of any of these proposals would be a nightmare. The UC Santa Barbara one states that teachers must alert students beforehand of, “content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” So does that mean that a kid would have to bring a note from his or her psychologist supporting a claim of PTSD? Would students need to inform their teachers of their PTSD at the beginning of the course so the school can protect itself from possible future complaints? And if a student hasn’t been diagnosed and has never told anyone of a past trauma? No problem, I guess, because these trigger warnings are supposed to cover any conceivable trauma that might be mentioned in a college class?
A snafu in that plan arises when you read what a psychological trigger actually is.
According to Psych central:
“A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his original trauma. Triggers are very personal; different things trigger different people. The survivor may begin to avoid situations and stimuli that she/he thinks triggered the flashback. She/he will react to this flashback, trigger with an emotional intensity similar to that at the time of the trauma. A person’s triggers are activated through one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.
– Often someone who resembles the abuser or who has similar traits or objects (ie. clothing, hair color, distinctive walk).
– Any situation where someone else is being abused (ie. anything from a raised eyebrow and verbal comment to actual physical abuse).
– The object that was used to abuse
– The objects that are associated with or were common in the household where the abuse took place (ie. alcohol, piece of furniture, time of year).
– Any place or situation where the abuse took place (ie. specific locations in a house, holidays, family events, social settings).
So by definition, a couch or a Christmas tree can be triggering for a person. It’s more individual than say, the word Depression marching across a cheap tshirt.
Even McDonough acknowledges the difficulty in sufficiently preventing any and all triggers.
“There is plenty of room to debate the uses and consequences of applying trigger warnings to course material. Trauma responses are varied, complicated and often unpredictable; there is no fail-safe way to shield someone from such a response,” she writes. “But while we are talking about the potential limits of trigger warnings, we should also probably be discussing the context in which this is all playing out and address the steps college administrations can take to make their campus environments safer for students. As a friend remarked in a conversation about Jarvie’s piece, students might be less inclined to request a trigger warning for The Great Gatsby if they felt confident that their school took seriously racist frat parties, epidemic rates of sexual violence, and persistent failures of accountability from administrators.”
Really? So it’s now the American Literature professor’s duty to put a “necessary Band-Aid” on The Great Gatsby because somewhere on campus, some frat-iots might be wearing blackface at a party? Not to mention that it sounds like she’s suggesting that colleges should throw trigger-warning requirements around their campuses like toilet paper rolls around a frat house until some magical day when school administrators stamp out sexual assault.
And “potential” limits of trigger warnings? Like the ones you just acknowledged in your previous two sentences?
(And incidentally, there is not an “epidemic” rate of sexual violence. After a significant drop in rates of violence against women in the U.S. over a 10-year period, the numbers plateaued between 2005 and 2010.)
I’d also like to know why no one ever suggests trigger warnings before discussing police violence against young people of color, but before I digress too much, here’s a good explanation of the problem with trigger warnings that a friend of mine posted on Facebook regarding Jarvie’s story:
“People are perfectly capable of reading a headline or skimming the content and deciding for themselves whether they can handle it. I also hate that it is almost exclusively to ‘protect’ women, like we are incapable of resilience after (usually sexual) trauma and will fall to pieces if we hear about a campus rape or someone being arrested for child molestation. I certainly don’t want to live in a world in which trigger warnings accompany coverage about war or human rights violations—as if protecting people’s feelings is more important than shedding light on real problems that need solutions.”
I will say that I think that it’s reasonable for visitors to a Feminist blog or a self-help discussion board to have an expectation that certain topics will be treated with sensitivity. But as these college campus proposals will absolutely have a chilling effect on the flow of information in universities, I agree with Jill Filipovic, who participated in a feminist roundtable discussion of the New Republic story hosted by The Nation:
“[T]here is the fact that the universe does not treat its members as if they come hand-delivered in a box clearly marked ‘fragile,’” Filipovic says. “The world can be a desperately ugly place, especially for women. That feminist blogs try to carve out a little section of the world that is a teeny bit safer for their readers is a credit to many of those spaces. Colleges, though, are not intellectual or emotional safe zones. Nor should they be.”
“Trigger warnings and content notices in ‘accountable spaces’ on obvious distressing content like graphic depictions of sexual assault and violence are not difficult to do and can save trauma survivors from pain,” Jessica Valenti wrote. “But as someone who has had PTSD, I know that a triggering event can be so individual, so specific, that there is no anticipating it. Last year, a position in yoga class gave me a panic attack because it so closely resembled the position I was in when I had an emergency C-section. Last night—for the first time in over a year—I had a flashback. It took me an over an hour to realize that the trigger was an incessant distant beeping coming from a neighbor’s fire alarm, which sounded like the beeping of my then-two-pound daughter’s heart and oxygen monitors. There is no trigger warning for that. There is no trigger warning for living your life.”
I had a sense trigger that it took years for me to even realize was happening. For much of my life, I thought that the smell of sweat and alcohol seeping out of a person’s pores was what men smelled like. I finally realized that it isn’t what “men” smell like, it’s what child molesters smell like. More specifically, what my molester smelled like. When I smell it, I’m a vulnerable 5 year old again.
But I don’t expect a college professor or the Internet to save me from the smell. Nor, obviously, should I.
Valenti also quoted Roxanne Gay in her story for The Nation: “When I see trigger warnings, I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel protected. Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
Despite unpleasant associations with certain smells and sights, I can read the word “molestation” without feeling like someone should’ve warned me before I did so. And even if I was warned, it wouldn’t help me. Scrubbing the world clean of any mention or hint of child abuse doesn’t erase my or anyone else’s experience. People who have experienced trauma need to find their own ways to deal with it and live their lives with as little fear as possible.
Overused trigger warnings aren’t maps that help in that journey. They’re roadblocks.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.