Trigger Warnings: Recognizing the Trauma of Others

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“A phrase posted at the beginning of various posts, articles, or blogs. Its purpose is to warn weak minded people who are easily offended that they might find what is being posted offensive in some way due to its content, causing them to overreact…Trigger warnings are unnecessary 100% of the time due to the fact that people who are easily offended have no business randomly browsing the internet anyways. As a result of the phrase’s irrelevance, most opinions that start out with this phrase tend to be simplistic and dull since they were made by people ridiculous enough to think that the internet is supposed to cater to people who can’t take a joke.”

Thus begins the rather prejudiced definition of the term “Trigger warning” on the crowd-sourcing site, which allows users to submit definitions that are then “up-voted”. This means that the top definition is the most popular among the site’s users.  While this is by no means a good method of finding accurate, impartial definitions, it is a good way to gauge the reaction of a particular part of the population— primarily young internet users— to hot button issues in popular culture.  This definition for trigger warning (and, indeed, many alternative definitions given on the page) is particularly eloquent at summing up the indignation felt by many in reaction to the recent appearance of the term “trigger warning” in the vocabulary of many young activists.

Trigger warnings have existed in one form or another well before the phrase “trigger warning” was coined.  In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America began rating films by dividing them into age groups (G for general audiences, R for restricted under the age of 18) with the idea that the material in a film might be harmful to some viewers.  The rating system gave viewers, particularly parents, an idea of what to expect in a film as a way to gauge whether or not it would be appropriate for themselves or their child.  Far before this rating system was introduced, we knew about shell-shock, now called post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD) in soldiers.  One symptom of PTSD is flashbacks to a traumatic event that can be triggered by a certain scent, sound, or image, and it’s been understood that we need to protect soldiers from these emotionally painful experiences.  However, trigger warnings in a more modern sense are an invention of the feminist “blogosphere”, typically used before graphic depictions of sexual violence with the idea of protecting survivors of sexual violence from a potential flashback.  It’s common for survivors of rape or sexual assault to suffer from PTSD.

The current controversy around the use of trigger warnings has to do with their use on college campuses.  Students have begun requesting trigger warnings for things like misogyny, physical abuse, and racial violence.  Many schools have made trigger warnings mandatory for professors. Those professors have reacted in alarm, claiming that they are being “policed”. They have been forced to give trigger warnings to classic works of literature and censor their teaching for fear of attack.  Meanwhile, it is believed that college students are asking to be coddled. Editing out material the elicits strong emotion has allowed them to grow overly fragile, it is said.

About trigger warnings, Vanessa López, a teacher in MICA’s school of education, says, “I think it’s a very white, middle class term.  I feel like being a human in America is a trigger warning.  Like being a woman in this country is going to trigger things, being a person of color is going to trigger things…”  Ms. López says that instead of including trigger warnings, teachers should be making “safe spaces” that create a dynamic in which a student is comfortable to express any trauma that may come up.  “If you come into it knowing that it’s hard, and also are trying to create a safe space, [acknowledging that] we’re going to have a hard conversation, we’re all going to be ok because we all have each other’s best interests in mind…for me creating that safe space is, first, acknowledging what’s present, and acknowledging the things that maybe we cannot change in a semester or in an hour, and modeling and being open and being vulnerable and being present.”

It should be acknowledged that, while not in favor of trigger warnings, Ms. López’s viewpoint differs drastically from that of the most vocal of trigger-warning opposers, many of whom believe that students are simply being over-sensitive and need to be prepared to deal with the real world.  While Ms. López’s opinion does acknowledge this idea, it also addresses a need for increased sensitivity between peers and teachers, as well as an increased sensitivity to one’s own emotional state.  “You’re not going to make everybody feel safe, just like I don’t always feel safe, and I think that’s ok.”

Aidan Spann, a former BSA student who is now involved in MICA’s Campus Advocates, Survivors, and Allies (CASA) group, believes that trigger warnings do hold value for the modern student.  “If you’re in a certain situation where you feel like you’re not mentally capable of processing what you’re seeing, like if you watch a rape scene in a movie or in a program and don’t feel like having a panic attack, or you don’t feel like having a flashback, [a trigger warning would be] really valuable.”  She believes that trigger warnings can and should be given for, among many things, movies with graphic content, depictions of certain levels of domestic abuse and violence, and rape scenes.

Much has been made of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a practice that focuses on teaching a victim to recognize that their thinking, in reacting to a trigger, is distorted, and teaching them to follow a more rational line of thinking.  An important aspect of this therapy is Prolonged Exposure Therapy, in which a victim triggers themselves over and over again, reliving the traumatic incident until it no longer causes the victim to feel distress.  One article in particular, “The Coddling of the American Mind”, published in The Atlantic, suggests that, by requiring trigger warnings, we deprive students of the practice of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in class.  The reality of this situation is that most professors are not professional psychiatrists, and are not trained in the practice of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.   However, access to therapy should be a resource available to survivors, according to Ms. Spann: “there needs to be more emphasis on giving survivors the tools to deal with [trauma]”.  She notes, “your trigger could be a sense of smell or the sight of a certain toy that was present at the time, so it’s not necessarily abusive language as it is your own personal anxiety…” Trigger warnings cannot catch all potentially triggering stimuli.

Ms. Spann also acknowledges that there is a limit to the material that should receive a trigger warning, or, at least, that there’s a gray area.  She spoke of an example that CASA faced this year with a video created to educate their fellow classmates on campus rape and sexual assault: “…there’re scenes leading up to a rape, so that we can show people different situations that qualify as sexual assault, so that we can show people what sexual assault really looks like. Some people were talking about how they wish there was a trigger warning for that, because there wasn’t really any time of warning… some people were also talking about making that part of the orientation optional, and so the debate is, if we make that optional, people who actually need to see that, people who don’t know what consent is, are going to be able to skip that, so it’s kind of like a thin line.”  Eventually, she and the group concluded that the video would be mandatory, but would come with the warning that the video should be viewed, “in a place where [the student] could have any sort of reaction they felt.”  This warning, arguably, is sufficient enough to constitute a trigger warning. It also reveals another purpose for trigger warning; allowing students to prepare for potentially triggering material that follows.  Ms. Spann agreed that, “It allows people to prepare themselves…” Many students want warnings to prepare themselves for what may come ahead, not because they want to avoid the work, but because they want to be emotionally ready for the work.  In the words of Ms. Spann, “[Trigger warnings] give the victim a sense of control, because they get to decide when they experience [triggering work]… when the trauma happened to them initially, they didn’t decide it. They didn’t want it.”






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