TW: This piece may contain material that is upsetting or offensive to some audiences.
On the Origins of the Trigger Warning
Trigger warnings (TWs) on the Internet began as an earnest, potentially useful way to give audiences a heads up before delving into serious issues like rape, eating disorders, or domestic violence. This way, individuals who may not be emotionally prepared for that kind of discussion (generally victims themselves) could safely, comfortably dip out when necessary, for self-preservation. Simply, the early TW was a refreshing dose of online empathy for those battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Even so, the effectiveness of TWs for people with PTSD remains to be seen, but we’ll come back to that. Trigger warnings were assigned to a fairly narrowly defined set of subject matters, and, in fact, were borne out of the feminist blogosphere.
But as its usage has evolved and expanded over time, it’s been rendered, at worst, condescending, infantilizing, and anti-intellectual and, at best, meaningless. Trigger warnings have infiltrated an ever broader scope of subject matters, they’ve popped out of online forums and into university classrooms, and the definition of “trigger” itself has become a catch-all for things that may cause discomfort and/or not align with our belief system. These days, the TW is doing more harm than good.
Many opposed to trigger warnings have argued they’re a grand, exhausting exercise in political correctness, an attack on the final remains of our oh-so-endangered (Gasp) FREEDOM OF SPEECH! A) Yawn. B) How many people who make this unoriginal, misguided argument could accurately define “freedom of speech”? That’s rhetorical. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.
I’m not bothered by TWs because of their PC nature, but rather because I believe—assuming they ever were—they are no longer serving their intended purpose. And in the meantime, they are stifling our ability to have complex conversations about difficult subjects.
In their well-intentioned quest to protect the emotionally vulnerable, they have, at once, politicized mental health and protected the easily offended from critical thinking.
Let’s take, for example, academia.
Dr. Mark Neumann is a professor at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication. He believes some students use triggers warnings as a means to “[…]object to hearing something they disagree with, something that might challenge their world view.” “I’m not here to insulate you from ideas,” he says, “Faculty don’t choose course material because they’re trying to harm or upset. They choose material because they believe it illustrates a point worth making and discussing. It’s a disservice to students to create an environment that’s entirely comfortable.”
He offers up a report on trigger warnings, published by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) last year. The report, he says, is representative of his own views.
The authors write, “Institutional requirements or even suggestions that faculty use trigger warnings interfere with faculty academic freedom in the choice of course materials and teaching methods.” They question the ethics and effectiveness of taking away a level of autonomy from educators.
The AAUP report reads:
There are reasons, however, for concern that even voluntary use of trigger warnings included on syllabi may be counterproductive to the educational experience. Such trigger warnings conflate exceptional individual experience of trauma with the anticipation of trauma for an entire group, and assume that individuals will respond negatively to certain content. A trigger warning might lead a student to simply not read an assignment or it might elicit a response from students they otherwise would not have had, focusing them on one aspect of a text and thus precluding other reactions. Trigger warnings thus run the risk of reducing complex literary, historical, sociological and political insights to a few negative characterizations. By calling attention to certain content in a given work, trigger warnings also signal an expected response to the content (e.g., dismay, distress, disapproval), and eliminate the element of surprise and spontaneity that can enrich the reading experience and provide critical insight.
Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens. Trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education.
Under this far-reaching, broadly-defined idea of a “trigger,” students are given permission to opt out of discussion for the sake of comfort. “Being unwilling to confront some other idea that isn’t your own—that’s not PTSD,” says Neumann. There is a distinct difference between those suffering from PTSD and those who are opposed to new perspectives, but he fears the culture of TWs has blurred the line.
Worse yet, TWs allow students to leave class simply because they can. A friend of mine observed this in a graduate-level course at NAU. His professor provided a trigger warning for a conversation about rape. “Half the class, mostly skater bros, left. They started laughing as soon as they got into the hallway,” he says.
Neumann says, “I don’t know what students are going through, or what their past looks like, but memory is very associative, and I cannot try to anticipate for a class of 375 students what will be triggering to any one student. It could be a song, a smell, any number of things. Nobody is saying, ‘Well, fuck the people who have PTSD,’ but mandating a policy on [trigger warnings] opens the door to a lot of things. The spirit of trigger warnings is empathy, but what’s the scope of that? That’s where it becomes a problem.” Essentially, TWs could very well be accidentally inviting willful ignorance into institutions meant to represent the very antithesis of ignorance.
Some faculty, however, do use TWs voluntarily in the classroom. Aaron Hanlon, an assistant professor of English at Colby College, contributed an opinion piece to the New Republic wherein he argued that both students and professors need trigger warnings. Faculty across the nation remain divided on the issue.
But the authors of the AAUP report write, “The classroom is not the appropriate venue to treat PTSD,” a medical condition for which TWs are an “inadequate” and “diversionary” response. Perhaps then, the Internet is no better of a home for TWs.
In clinical psychology, trauma triggers refer to anything that causes a person to experience flashbacks from a traumatic event in their life. Triggers will often cause people to again feel intense emotions that they felt at the time of the original trauma. Trauma triggers are associated with PTSD sufferers.
Trauma triggers are, by definition, rare. A 2001 study in Biological Psychiatry found that while trauma is a common human experience, developing PTSD from it is far rarer. The authors surveyed 2,181 adult subjects, finding that 89.6% had experienced a form of trauma, but just 9.2% developed PTSD. That said, among survivors of sexual assault, PTSD is markedly more common, but many rape survivors who meet the symptomatic criteria for PTSD immediately following trauma will recover from these symptoms within months. A study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress examined 95 survivors of rape or attempted rape, and found that while 94% met criteria for PTSD roughly two weeks after the trauma, that number dropped to 47% by roughly three months after the trauma.
“So what if a comparatively small portion of the population suffers from PTSD? It takes so little time and effort to throw out a #TW. Just because they are few doesn’t mean they don’t deserve protection!” I hear you, empathetic Tumblr user I made up. I really do.
But a famous study by the Institute of Medicine found confronting trauma triggers is more effective than avoiding them. In fact, avoidance of triggers can actually exacerbate symptoms of PTSD. Moreover, making trauma a central part of one’s identity—something TW culture may aid in—has negative effects on mental health. In other words, hypersensitivity to triggers may very well be more harmful to a PTSD sufferer than helpful.
Miri Mogilevsky disagrees. Her opinion piece for Daily Dot details how she, as a trauma survivor, engages in complex, but positive ways with trigger warnings online. She doesn’t always use them to opt out of reading triggering material, but rather to emotionally prepare herself for the material. Mogilevsky resents the “You must be exposed to triggers in order to overcome them” argument against TWs, believing it is arrogant, ersatz concern for a survivor’s well-being. She feels TWs help put her in control of her own mental health.
Mogilvesky writes, “In my experience, most survivors of serious trauma—the ones that get triggered by things—are either already accessing mental healthcare, are unable to access mental healthcare, or have tried it and found it unhelpful. Please stop with the condescending advice to students to seek mental healthcare ‘instead’ of asking for trigger warnings.”
Neumann responds, “Suddenly now she’s the spokesperson for [PTSD] because she has anecdotal examples? I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it as the end-all-be-all.”
Her story does capture perfectly what the trigger warning was intended to do. It’s functional. I get it. I like it.
But the problem remains: Trigger warnings have become so widely used and in so many contexts that they currently cause far more problems than they solve.
So what’s your point?
Trigger warnings have outlived their original intended function and, subsequently, their greatest potential for good. A friend asked me, “Is over-sensitivity a crime? Isn’t life shitty enough? Why can’t we live life in bubbles?” I wondered, too. Is it really a problem if people are extra sensitive? Does long-term exposure to difficult subject matters really make us healthier, more open-minded, more free-thinking people? In short, the answer is yes. The general consensus of the scientific community is that empathy is a function of exposure.
In the case of the skater bros leaving class simply because they were given permission to, the TW was detrimental. Here, exposure to a meaningful conversation about rape might have otherwise incited some empathy.
So, how do we handle triggers? Some have suggested that instead of using “trigger warning” we use “content warning.” I’m not so convinced that a small shift in semantics would settle this one. But I’m also not convinced that saying, “Life’s triggerin’, baby, and that’s the way it’s gonna be” would settle it either. It might just be time to re-evaluate the meaning and function of trigger warnings by untangling the increasingly intertwined meanings of the words “triggered” and “offended.”