I’ve been watching this conversation about trigger warnings take shape for a while. Trigger warnings are used to warn others that there might be something you're about to say or post could cause a negative reaction. I first heard the phrase in a college classroom when I was an undergrad. Then I started seeing it on feminist blogs a lot; it really came from feminist spaces as a way to have tough conversations without alienating people, and it was always a useful way to be inclusive while still talking about intense topics like rape, abuse, and trauma. It’s difficult to comment on trigger warnings—too little interest in them means you’re being insensitive, too much interest means you’re overreacting and being absurd. Trigger warnings are used as weapons against individuals (did you know people have argued that mentioning Dan Savage should be preceded by a trigger warning?) and now, entire universities.
At my core, I think trigger warnings are weird. It’s strange to go through life assuming every space is suitable for you, and if it isn’t then you can do something to change it so that it is. That’s just fundamentally untrue, and a new level of privilege I can’t even comprehend. It’s also strange to me that people want to be shielded from pain not by changing themselves, but by influencing everything around them.
But I also have personal experience with trauma, and I often think about what a more compassionate world would look like. I was sexually and physically abused as a child over a period of years. No one knew about it (threatening children is still a remarkably effective way to ensure silence), and by the time I was able to drag myself to therapy in my 20s I’d already been suicidal, depressed, and sort of dead inside. Aside from wishing it never happened, I wished that I would be able to find a way to get through it, to not live with the pain of assault every single day. It seemed impossible—for the first few sessions I just sat on my therapist’s couch and paid $45 an hour to sob. But then my therapist, knowing I liked to read, gave me a few books that she thought would help, things like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and The Courage to Heal. And it did—reading about survivors helped me survive. I could finally see a way through to talking about it, then putting in the work to do something about it, and finally becoming the badass motherfucker you’re reading right now.
Imagine if those books were deemed too triggering, and I never had a chance to read them.
I know that my experience is specific to me, but I think there’s something to be said for learning about trauma without experiencing it all over again. The only way I figured out how to do that was with therapy. When I see people who require trigger warnings, my first thought is to pay attention to what they’re saying, but my second thought is “Are they getting the help they need?” I think we’re missing a bigger point here, because trigger warnings are really about mental health. The world is shitty and unyielding and not likely to bend to your will, and your best offense is a good defense. With the right tools, it’s possible to live in a sea of assholes and thrive.
But we’re not giving people the right tools with trigger warnings—we’re giving them a way out of their pain by avoidance and deflection. Having a way out isn’t enough when it’s situational, because you never know what’s going to bring up your issues again. Is it easier to step into a suit of armor, or cover the world in bubble wrap?
Trigger warnings in the classroom are trickier. I used to teach gender studies, and difficult topics are likely to come up because women are treated like garbage the world over. I didn’t want my students to feel like they had to suffer through something that made them feel terrible, but learning about the world was their job, and teaching them about it was mine. I tried to walk the line—I told students one semester that if they had any difficulty with the topics we were covering to please come and see me so we can get them the help they need, but that I would also come up with a different assignment for them. That quickly backfired, as I was suddenly writing up tailor-made assignments for 50 individuals. I was also taken advantage of completely—one student who hadn’t read the book I assigned told me that she couldn’t even start it because she was told there was a character in it who had bulimia. She admitted that she didn’t have bulimia herself—she just didn’t want to read about it.
I empathize with people who have experienced trauma. I’m compassionate, and I want them to get help to feel better. But I think the path to healing is not avoidance, and trigger warnings have gone way off the rails.