I recently read one of many articles addressing the issue of trigger warnings in academia. A group of students at a university brought it up and the media was quick to jump on it. A “trigger” is described as an extremely negative response – such as PTSD flashbacks or urges to self harm – to pictures, text, video, and/or audio. Warnings serve to alert a person that what they are about to encounter might have content that could trigger them.
The comments on the article were astoundingly ignorant and insensitive. One person objected to using trigger warnings, justifying their stance by saying, “Life is a trigger.” Others expressed contempt for those who need trigger warnings, describing them as weak or overly-sensitive or having a victim complex. One commenter said people who wanted trigger warnings were incapable of using the Internet (and informing themselves about the content of a textbook), had not heard about cognitive behavioral therapy, and were just bored. A common thread I noticed was that people believed trigger warnings were in place before content that was “offensive.” That’s not what a trigger warning is about. Being offended is not the same as being triggered. At all.
I have been triggered. I immediately began having a panic attack and had to leave where I was and curled up into the back of a car, unable to stop shaking and crying. That episode subsided, but the next day, when I was back at my dorm, I locked myself in my room for two days. I was unable to do anything besides lie on the floor and fight the flashbacks. People had to bring me food. Being triggered disrupted my entire life, at at the end of the school year, had a negative effect on my final exams.
It’s bizarre that people believe that those who want trigger warnings are sensitive or even naive. More than once I’ve heard people say that life is hard, suck it up, you can’t be protected forever. It’s not like these students are unaware of life’s suffering. They have literally already been through trauma, including rape, abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm. They are the opposite of naive. They would just like a head’s up so they don’t have to relive these painful memories without warning. A professor at a college in New York says that most decent professors essentially already warn students, in his syllabus, he includes a brief note that makes it clear that some of the material in the class may be difficult for certain students, so if they need to excuse themselves, they are free to do so. They are responsible for the material missed. In a film class on violence I took my third year, we watched some intense clips. My professor always told us that what we were about to watch might be too much. For one film in particular, she emphasized just how brutal and disturbing it was, so I simply did not attend the screening at all. For the essay we were assigned on that film, I simply read a brief summary online and went from there. Students are masters of this, which is often called “bull-shitting.” It’s why cliff notes exist.
A criticism of having trigger warnings in academia is just how far this will go. People love the slippery slope argument, and in the article’s comment section, people were spinning wild presumptions about the kinds of content that would be labeled. “If a book has a troubled relationship between a father and son, will that be labeled too?” If that relationship includes sexual or other physical abuse, then yes. There are well-known triggers that encompass a wide range of content (sexual abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, emotional abuse), so that’s a good place to start, and it isn’t asking too much. Movies have MPAA ratings that specifically outline why it has that rating; this is not a new concept. It’s strange that people are so opposed to implementing warnings, it’s incredibly easy, something that any decent professor is already familiar with, and saves students from being surprised and sent into a full-blown anxiety attack or from self-harm.
I use trigger warnings. At least two of my posts have included a warning at the top. I do this because I care about those who have been through trauma, and because I don’t want anyone’s experience of my writing to be overwhelmed by negative memories. Any distraction from a core message (in movies, books, etc) is problematic, and a distraction that disturbs and triggers someone can completely override any positive effect the movie/book might have had. Sure, you could tell that person to just get over it and enjoy everything else, but you would be revealing your ignorance. This person would love to “get over it,” but it isn’t that easy and they weren’t necessarily prepared to be dealing with their trauma in this way at this time. A classroom isn’t really the ideal place to be hashing out your past.