On Knocking on the Door
CW: sexual assault
Trigger warnings are like knocking on someone’s door before you enter. You knock to give the person a heads up that you are coming in. They might yell “come in” and you enter, or maybe, it isn’t a great time. Maybe this is because the person is naked, and they just need to prepare themselves for a second before you come in. Maybe, they need to work and don’t want to be disturbed, but you can come back and talk when they have finished their readings. Maybe, you just got into a fight and they are upset with you, and yes – maybe they will run into you later and you will have another fight, but right at that moment, they don’t want you to see you.
Trigger warnings are like knocking on someone’s door, except that what is knocking is a potential tsunami of deeply distressing memories.
Let me be clear about what I mean by ‘deeply distressing’, because I don’t mean that my feelings are hurt. I don’t mean experiencing the kind of emotion that I can control. I don’t mean something which I can learn to “cope” with, just because I am confronted with it a few times. What I mean is that all my muscles start to seize up, I feel nauseous, a lump grows in my throat, and my hands start to shake. I mean that I zone out, and an uncontrollable tide of memories of being raped flood my brain. I mean thinking I can feel his touch on parts of my body that I never gave him permission to touch, while I dig my fingernails into my arm because I need the physical pain to bring me back to the present. I mean reliving my sexual assault in every sense of the word.
Here’s what I wish people knew about triggers.
Triggers are something that remind a person of that traumatic event. And yes, if you have suffered trauma, there are going to be a lot of triggers which you have to deal with on a daily basis. Some are worse than others, and sometimes it’s just about avoiding as many of them as possible.
Triggers are an emotional and physiological reaction to severe stress. Learning to cope with triggers is hard. It’s like training your brain to run a marathon. Just like how sometimes you don’t have the energy to go to the gym, sometimes, I don’t have the energy to engage with content which reminds me of being sexually assaulted.
Most importantly, trigger warnings don’t mean you can’t share your opinion on triggering topics, that you can’t teach that topic, or that those with triggers never engage in the issue. It just means writing four words at the top of your page.
It just means you have to knock on my door, and that if I’m having a bad day, I’m not going to say “come in”.
I get it. I don’t like progressivism, or PC culture, or whatever you would call it. I’m not like that. I like offensive jokes. I consider trolling to be an art. And to be honest, in the majority of instances, I think trigger warnings are used less for their noble origins of protecting PTSD sufferers, and more simply used to end discussion rather than stimulate it. But we – those who would in principle oppose trigger warnings – should use them, if only because it makes our opposition listen.
First of all, it should not be your goal to win arguments, but rather to persuade. Too many people consider these to be the same thing. I’m not saying that there isn’t a time when an argument is fun: when you’re with people who agree with you, and you want to solidify support by pointing out how mind-numbingly dumb your opponent’s beliefs are, it’s great. But arguments are never convincing. You can win the argument resolutely only to have your opponent spout the same nonsense a week later. Surely, this isn’t what you want: to have the same formulaic conversation over and over again as if it were a Marvel sequel. No, you want to get somewhere, explore ideas, and genuinely communicate with the other person. For that, you must be persuasive.
The fact is, whether you agree or disagree with trigger warnings is irrelevant. The people you wish to convince like trigger warnings, so you should use them. Play the room. Use their language. Come across as someone within their in-group who understands and still disagrees, not as the ‘other’ that can be dismissed offhand. If using a trigger warning encourages people to read or listen to your first sentence, isn’t that a positive thing? Of course, some will think you’re a piece of shit either way, and consider your disagreement a moral deficiency. But some – specifically the silent observers – won’t, and it is for those people that you should use trigger warnings.
We should be very careful with our words for they are our means of sophisticated communication. We should understand our goals and what we actually want. We should empathise with the people we disagree with, if only to understand why they make the arguments that they do. We should do this so that when they inevitably make the same horseshit arguments they always do, they might listen to you when you call them out on it.
On the Linguistic Nuance of ‘Trigger’
While the concept of a ‘trigger warning’ has become increasingly popular in the last three years, a substantial proportion of leading progressives have silently adopted ‘content warning’ instead. The reason, as I will explain, is probably to avoid the notion of weakness inherent in the term trigger.
Attaching a warning tag to content is not new phenomenon. We have warnings ranging from the serious ‘NSFW’ (not safe for work) for explicit/gore content, to the mild ‘spoiler’ tag to protect people’s enjoyment from story discovery. Trigger warnings, however, have received disproportionately more criticism compared to other tags, including content warnings. So, given adding a warning for distressing content is hardly radical, why were trigger warnings not accepted as smoothly as the others?
There are two primary reasons.
Firstly, the term trigger not only identifies content, but also stereotypes the audience. Compared with other tags that purely describe content, trigger holds the implication that audience at whom the warning is directed are overly sensitive. The word trigger has been typically used in association with non-living objects like weapons or devices, and negative events like war. Even in the cases when the word is used to describe a human being, it’s a term like ‘hair-trigger’. When the word has been historically associated with dehumanising and abusive implications, it shouldn’t be surprising when some audiences feel dehumanised by a trigger warning, and thus express negativity towards the term.
Secondly, there isn’t a boundary for ‘triggers’ that is intuitively easy to understand. ‘NSFW’ and ‘spoiler’ are relatively straightforward, but what makes something a ‘trigger’? It is too sophisticated for those who are not well versed in psychology, not to mention that there are schools of definitions which range from strictly violence-related events to emotional incidences, or even “anything that is potentially distressing”. When a term is difficult to understand and has no clear boundaries, and a moral call must be made regardless, it wouldn’t be surprising that some people feel upset and try to resist it.
A trigger warning often requires specifications in order to function properly – one example would be ‘trigger warning: severe violence’. A subtle difference between this warning, and ‘content warning: severe violence’, is that the former emphasizes that the warning is not for everyone who dislikes the distressing content, but specifically for people suffering PTSD. So, I ask, is this a necessary exclusion?
Creating a warning for distressing content is a reasonable concept, and not one that there has been debate over until recently. This practice does not deserve the controversy it has received due to the adoption of one word as opposed to another.
On Empirics and Academic Debate
Trigger warnings – warnings specific to those suffering from PTSD – on media content are unambiguously positive. I would assert, however, that the term ‘content warning’ is much more inclusive, and is much more appropriate. For example, for most of the media we see on television, we receive a content warning before the program begins – be that a rating or a description of what content might be inappropriate for certain viewers. This is a good thing. It allows people to choose whether or not (based on their own experiences) the content will cause considerable emotional stress. The audience of a content warning includes people both with and without disabilities, whereas a trigger warning is explicitly targeted at those with mental health issues who are ‘triggered’ by the content of a piece of media.
In response to the first main point of opposition: content warnings do not harm academic debate. Many people take issue with trigger/content warnings because they are “conducive to poor academic debate”, inasmuch as people may choose not to participate in a discussion of ideas that are oppositional to their own opinions. But empirically, the overwhelming majority of content warnings do not refer to the nature of the discourse in a political/ideological sense, but rather relate to the aspects of the content which can be emotionally stressful to face. These include violence of various forms, discrimination, certain offensive language, and things along those general lines. Some people argue that if we let content warnings become prevalent it will become ‘a slippery slope’ wherein all types of harmless things will be requisite for a warning. But once again, empirically, there is no evidence or legitimate push for content warnings to include ‘anything and everything’: instead, they seem to be almost exclusively limited to the categories mentioned above. There is no fair reasoning for this slippery slope outcome.
Content warnings have the opportunity to help everybody. They allow people to prepare themselves before engaging with content, removing the possibility of a nasty shock at something confronting. Content warnings enable people to engage with content in a way that minimises emotional harm to themselves. Discourse of ideas is almost always unaffected by this, and academic integrity is not going to be threatened by a three word pretext.
It is an easy thing to do, that may lead to a good deal of benefit, so I say: why not?
On the Validity of Experience
There is a lot of debate around the idea of trigger/content warnings, as to whether they actually help or hinder those that suffer from PTSD/anxiety/any other condition that can cause a sufferer to experience a flare up of symptoms when exposed to certain content – whether it be literary, visual, auditory etc.
I have heard people around me – friends, even – claim that people on the internet are just “too sensitive”, lack resilience, are attention-seeking, or are looking for other people to validate and enable their unhealthy behaviours. I have heard people say that trigger and content warnings were never needed before they were created, and that they’re a strictly millennial concept that inhibits freedom of speech and forces internet users to operate with the “eggshell skull” rule, even in their daily Facebook posts.
The fact of the matter is that triggering someone’s very real, very valid and very difficult symptoms is entirely different to merely offending or disagreeing with someone. You neglecting to put a content warning about distressing themes in a video or article you post isn’t just going to make someone vaguely irritated, or invite a snappy comment. This is going to put people on the bathroom floor. This is going to put people backwards in their recovery process. This is going to push them over the edge. Movies have ratings because some people of varying levels of vulnerability need to know what they will be exposed to beforehand. People with epilepsy need to be warned before viewing content with flashing lights. It’s not censorship – it’s being aware that other people have experiences different to yours.
Not believing in trigger warnings shouldn’t stop you from using them. Even if you think they’re pointless, it’s perhaps four words to protect other people around you from very real and very frightening exposure to things that can really hurt them. At no cost to yourself, you are saving others from serious danger and possibly death. Why wouldn’t you?
On the Fear of Falling
I’m not a sociologist, or whatever you have to be to make valid academic arguments about trigger warnings. I’m not even really an academic. All I do is go to class and make sure I pass courses – but trigger warnings hurt me.
Have you been to a waterpark, or a theme park, or even to Questacon, and been on one of those freefall-based rides? They’re intense. They’re terrifying. When you’re waiting and watching and your feet are on flat ground, everything’s fine. But then you make it up the ladder, past all the safety signs and you’ve memorised everything that could go wrong. Then you’re being buckled in and you can almost feel the way it’s going to be when everything breaks, and you fall, hard. Plus the worker’s so nonchalant, and that makes it infinitely worse. Then you’re clear, and you go, and it’s fine, and after the first second it’s like flying, so you line up and you go again. It’s never as frightening as it was the first time, but you never quite forget the fear and shame of being worried.
I know anxiety far too well. I haven’t found drugs that work. So every day is full of little comforting things I can do to calm myself down.
I also have a relatively traumatic past. You’d think trigger warnings would help me. No. God, no. When I’m sitting in the first lecture of semester and hear, “Texts in this course contain graphic scenes of sexual assault and may be disturbing for some readers”, the buckles click. When is the floor going to give way? How far am I going to fall before I land?
So then I read the book, because I want to pass. Every page is overwhelming. It takes me weeks to make progress. I’m exhausted. Sometime soon there’ll be something bad enough that my lecturer thought it was worth warning us about. But then there’s one scene where some jerk aggressively propositions the heroine. She walks away. It’s not even character-defining. Was that it? Really? All that fuss for something so trivial? But now I don’t want to ride again.
It’s okay to warn people. Sometimes we need warnings. Arms and legs remain inside the vehicle at all times, and nobody should have to relive sexual assault for class. But make your warnings simpler. I don’t need to be told what I should fear. Tell me, instead, that you’ll be here for me, and you’ll understand if I find the content emotionally overwhelming.
Trigger warnings hurt me more than they help me, and I’m surely not alone. I just wish someone would say that instead.
On Psychology & Cultural Politics
The arguments around trigger warnings tend to relate either to psychology or cultural politics.
Advocates argue that trigger warnings are important for protecting trauma victims from episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions. This movement was kicked off by a case where a rape victim was triggered by a class discussion of Ovid’s metamorphosis.
The first thing to note in this context is that PTSD is extremely rare, even among trauma victims. As Harvard psychology professor Richard McNally recently explained in the New York Times: “Epidemiological studies show that many people are exposed to trauma in their lives, and most have transient stress symptoms. But only a minority fails to recover, thereby developing PTSD. Students with PTSD are those mostly likely to have adverse emotional reactions to curricular material, not those with trauma histories whose acute stress responses have dissipated.”
Given this knowledge, it seems relevant to consider how many people exposed to material with trigger warnings are likely to have PTSD, how frequently reading said material would trigger PTSD, and how severe these episodes would be. Is the harm averted by trigger warnings greater than the benefits of not having them?
For conciseness, I will mention only one argument in favour of a more raucous university environment: anti-fragility.* Bone is anti-fragile – if you treat it gently, it will get brittle and break; you need to pressure it. Human psychology is the same. People who are not exposed to triggers and challenges are more likely to develop into anxiety- and depression-prone individuals.
Perhaps more importantly from a harm minimisation perspective, it turns out that avoidance of triggers is counter-therapeutic. Fleurkens et al’s study of sexual trauma victims found that “avoidance is a maladaptive control strategy… trauma-focused treatments stress the role of avoidance in the maintenance of PTSD… Prolonged exposure to safe but anxiety-provoking trauma-related stimuli is considered a treatment of choice for PTSD.” I can’t think of a much better example of ‘safe but anxiety-provoking trauma-related stimuli’ than reading Ovid in a class of literature majors.
There is an important counterargument to be made here, namely, you do not give someone psychotherapy without their consent. However, one could argue that if a University was to send you a letter explaining that much of the university environment university might be triggering – as Chicago recently did – and you attend anyway, then you have given consent. The language of Chicago’s letter was chest-thumping, but it seems an otherwise sensible policy.
That the costs of trigger warnings outweigh the benefits is a liberal argument grounded in classical utilitarianism. This moral paradigm argues that social justice is whatever arrangement maximises total welfare, which is derived by adding up the utility of each individual. Trigger warning advocates, however, are usually not utilitarian, and this is where the cultural politics comes in. Advocates instead typically operate what public choice theorists call a Rawlsian social welfare function. They define ‘justice’ as the maximisation of the utility of the worst-off person in society, even if it means disproportionately reducing the utility of everyone else. To a Rawlsian, no matter how much utility is lost by the ‘privileged’ students at university who don’t have PTSD, it doesn’t outweigh the utility gained by the few ‘oppressed’ students who benefit from trigger warnings.
Classical utilitarianism and Rawlsian/Marxist paradigms are irreconcilable. So whether trigger warnings preponderate will ultimately depend on the values of students, and whether universities can specialise to cater to diverse consumer groups.
* For more arguments, see Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt’s YouTube lecture on Coddle-U versus Strengthen-U.