Trigger Warnings: How We Are All Still Missing The Point

Today I woke up to find my social media newsfeeds flooded with yet another article condemning trigger warnings as “coddling college students” and once again, was flummoxed by the way that the article talked about trigger warnings and triggers.

I have already articulated most of my thoughts on the value of trigger warnings in my previous writings on the subject, and have also acknowledged that there is absolutely a balance to be met with regards to how we implement the use of content warnings and trigger warnings in academic environments.  That said, as a trauma professional, I have come to realize that a large part of my problem with the discourse on trigger warnings is that they tend to ignore what triggers actually are, and how they impact people.

So, what does it mean to be triggered?

When people talk about trigger warnings, they often refer to the idea that people don’t want to grapple with ideas that make them “uncomfortable”, or that this is about “protecting people from ideas”.  Triggers aren’t just things that make you uncomfortable; we may use the term that way colloquially, but we probably shouldn’t, because triggers in the context of mental health are tied to post traumatic stress/PTSD, and are often things that cause an individual’s brain to believe it is once again in danger by causing them to either mentally re-live a traumatizing event, or re-live the feelings associated with a traumatizing event.

In other words, when a sexual assault survivor becomes triggered, they are not just squirming in their seat because they wish someone would change the subject; they are having flashbacks of what happened, or experiencing a return of the sense of powerlessness, fear, pain, or other feelings associated with their assault.  See the difference?

When people oppose trigger warnings on the grounds that we shouldn’t just shield people from things that make them uncomfortable, they have half a point.  We should be challenging people-~-especially college students-~-to step outside their comfort zone, challenge their beliefs and assumptions, and consider different angles.  We need to be able to have conversations in classrooms about things like intimate partner violence, extreme poverty, racial violence, etc.  Nothing is ever going to change if the leaders of tomorrow are never even asked to consider some of the most pressing issues we face today, and feminists and other proponents of trigger warnings aren’t arguing for an end to the discourse.

But if you’ve never been triggered, or never seen someone be triggered, it may be hard to realize what it is we are trying to prevent, or to allow people to prepare themselves for.  Triggers look different for everyone, and they range from things like shaking, nausea, headaches, and uncontrollable crying to things like flashbacks and dissociation. In the face of triggering subjects, an individual can prepare to ground themselves, and be mentally prepared to engage in an intellectual conversation about something which has had a strong impact on them or someone they care about.  Just to reiterate: these individuals are not just uncomfortable with the subject; they are being forced to revisit traumatizing events in their lives, and for the record, I do not think that giving them a head’s up as to what they are walking into is, in fact, “coddling” them.

All of that said, the other argument I regularly see about trigger warnings is that they won’t be implemented in the real world, and the real world won’t include “safe spaces”, so we shouldn’t make colleges safe spaces either, so people can learn “coping skills”.

I have several responses.

First, people can’t learn “coping skills” if they are struggling to manage their mental health constantly and are being forced to revisit their traumas unnecessarily without adequate resources.  And even if you think people should confront their traumas, there are settings that are far better suited to this than your philosophy or political science class-~-like, for example, therapy, where a trained counselor can actually address the real issues, provide emotional support, and teach someone how to develop grounding techniques and coping skills.  Just because you can force someone to have a conversation in a particular context doesn’t make that context the most constructive place for that conversation.

Second, college is not “the real world” and if college were supposed to just prepare you for “the real world”, colleges would require financial literacy classes and teach you how to write a cover letter and what business casual is.  The fact that I managed to earn my degree without once learning about credit ratings or budget management is indicative of the fact that college is meant to provide an intellectually stimulating and challenging environment that allows us to learn how to think critically, not just how to behave in an office environment.  And if that is the case, we should be teaching people to think critically about how trauma impacts people’s lives and how to talk about difficult subjects respectfully so that productive conversations can be had, and which can include individuals who have firsthand experience with these issues, instead of shutting them out because they’re too busy hyperventilating in a bathroom or feeling so ashamed of their survivorship because of how it’s discussed they feel unable to speak at all.

And yes, those are actual ways I and other survivors have had to respond to discussions of our traumas.

But finally, I cannot and will not accept the idea that society should just be allowed to marginalize and disregard survivors of trauma just because we have always permitted people to get away with doing so in the past.  I refuse to accept that I need to be okay with rape jokes because other people don’t want to take sexual assault seriously; I refuse to accept that I need to accept jokes about domestic violence just because people don’t want to take abusive relationships seriously.  I have never heard anyone say that combat veterans are too sensitive about their combat experiences or the impact those experiences might have had on them; that disdain is reserved for survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence, those who have lost people to suicide, those who have struggled with eating disorders, etc. We accept only the trauma linked to the most masculinized forms of violence, and write off the ways in which traumas which disproportionately impact women effect the ways in which individuals function within their everyday lives.

And I cannot and will not accept that just because it has always been this way, it will always be this way; I reject, on face, the idea that I need to accept a loss of my own humanity because people don’t want to learn to be more respectful.  Trigger warnings are not such a huge ask; respect for survivors of traumatic experiences should not be seen as an unreasonable request.  I would beg people, as they move to engage in these conversations, to learn more about what it is we are actually discussing-~-and to take this opportunity to do as they would ask survivors of trauma, and engage in some serious intellectual consideration of the other side of this argument.

If you still think this is about just not wanting to discuss certain topics, you are missing the point.

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~ by Randi Saunders on August 11, 2015.

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