Trigger Warnings: Why I’m Offended That You Think It’s About Being Offended

I’ve honestly lost track of the number of articles and individuals who have attacked the concept of trigger warnings at this point.

I’ve honestly lost track of the number of times I have seen trigger warnings misconstrued as attempts to let people avoid anything that could ever make them uncomfortable or upset, the number of times I have seen them attacked as “attacks on free speech”, the number of times I have seen their advocates painted as whiny, immature individuals who are unable to deal with any idea that is unfamiliar or unpleasant.

And I’ve honestly lost track of the number of times that I’ve felt my stomach roll at these comments, because it’s clear to me that people do not understand trigger warnings-~-or, for that matter, triggers.  Please feel free to share this with those people.

Imagine for a moment that someone was injured.  Maybe they have a sprained or twisted ankle.  And they were with a group that was considering going on a hike.  Would you force them to go on the hike, or would you ask them if they were up for it.  You’d ask, right?  You’d ask because they’re injured, but they know their own physical limitations, and maybe they can handle a hike on a twisted ankle, but maybe they need to sit this one out, and wait until they’ve healed, and then they can go back to hiking.

Trigger warnings are the conversation where you ask if everyone is ready to go on the hike, so someone can brace up or tell you they need to sit it out.

Triggers are not about feeling upset.  They are images, ideas, comments, experiences, etc. which can trigger post-traumatic stress reactions related to the experience of trauma.  They are a symptom of a mental health issue which many survivors of trauma experience.  And when you write them off, what you essentially say is that mental health does not matter, and that people who want to protect their own mental health or that of others deserve to be attacked or vilified.  And while I’m not offended that you want to talk about something that could potentially trigger someone, I am offended that you don’t recognize the real lived experiences that survivors of trauma deal with every day.

I’ve previously referenced being a survivor on this blog, so most of my readers will know that I do talk about issues relevant to my trauma; and anyone who follows issues like domestic violence, sexual assault, etc., knows that survivors are able to discuss these things without necessarily being triggered, or that it is possible to work through a triggering situation.  It’s not that survivors of trauma necessarily cannot handle the subjects related to their traumas: it’s that in order to handle them, we often need to be able to prepare ourselves, and sometimes, a trigger just can’t be worked through immediately.  Sometimes, the only way to reasonably take care of yourself is to remove yourself from the situation.  And just like in my hiking metaphor, you wouldn’t vilify someone for saying that their sprained ankle meant the hike would be too difficult right now, you shouldn’t attack someone for saying that it’s possible that a discussion of sexual assault might be to painful for a survivor in that moment.

The reality is that only a survivor knows what their own experiences of being triggered will look like.  Maybe they have flashbacks-~-the classic PTSD symptom.  Maybe they burst into tears, maybe they shake uncontrollably, maybe they start sweating, maybe their bodies tense up, maybe they dissociate (meaning their brain loses track of the reality its currently in).  Everyone experiences and reacts to trauma differently.  Medically speaking, traumatic stress reactions result when the brain or body still thinks it is in danger, even when it is no longer in a dangerous situation.  When you force people to experience triggering environments, you in essence force them to re-live the emotional experience of the danger they survived.

People who bash advocates of trigger warnings are often those who have never experienced triggers themselves.  Those people are incredibly fortunate, but a large portion of the population does have to deal with traumas-~-from trauma related to military service, to issues related to suicide, eating disorders, sexual assault, childhood abuse, intimate partner violence, etc.  There is a large number of people who struggle to reconcile with the things they’ve survived.  It may not dominate their daily experiences.  They may not have post-traumatic stress symptoms often.  They may not have them at all anymore.  They may not ever want to talk about them, or they may be ready to talk about them openly.

But it’s wrong to make them sit through classes and listen to their classmates casually discuss rape as if it’s just a theoretical situation, if it’s something that has severely impacted their lives, if that’s too much to handle.  It’s wrong to force someone whose family shunned them or beat them for coming out as gay to have to sit and listen to people talk about their identity in the abstract, if the memories are still too raw.  It’s wrong to force those who lost people they love to suicide sit through class discussions in college where students carelessly comment that those who attempt suicide are weak (not an opinion held by this author, for the record).  And it’s not okay to force those who are healing to expose themselves to situations which could stunt their healing process or open them up to further attack by other students when they’re unable to hide that they are triggered.

To answer Chester E Finn Jr.’s whining in his article in Politico Magazine, of course we should still teach that Hitler targeted homosexuals as well as Jews in the Holocaust-~-people calling for trigger warnings aren’t calling for LGBTQ erasure; and of course we should read books that involve difficult issues like sexual assault or domestic violence.  But we should give students for whom such discussions or assignments could cause a legitimate mental health concern a chance to brace up, bow out, or find some other way to cope with the situation, instead of asserting that just because some are privileged enough to never have experienced trauma, those who were not so lucky need to just suck it up and deal with it.  It’s not about being offended, it’s about recognizing human limits, and the ignorance, apathy, and dismissal apparent in these arguments is the only thing I’m actually offended by.





~ by Randi Saunders on May 30, 2014.

One Response to “Trigger Warnings: Why I’m Offended That You Think It’s About Being Offended”

  1. […] 4. Trigger Warnings: Why I’m Offended You Think It’s About Being Offended […]

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