Hey U of Chicago: I’m an academic & survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.
E Price

I think one of the primary issues here is the word “trigger” itself.

Two of the best teachers I have ever had were my 11th and 12th grade high school English teachers, in 2010–11. I can remember a few books from the curricula which presented some seriously graphic content. Two that stand out are Native Son by Richard Wright, and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The discussions surrounding these books and others with violent scenes were always handled incredibly well by the instructors. Rather than simply dumping out “TW: electroshock therapy/torture”, they offered a few full sentences letting us know what we should expect from upcoming reading or conversations. They also set guidelines for how students should behave themselves during the sensitive discussions. Beyond that, I believe they even offered alternate readings for items like Native Son. I don’t know if anyone elected to take the alternates because it did not affect me and it is none of my business.

It was completely necessary and it no doubt improved everyone’s educational experience. But neither teacher ever used the word “trigger”. As you pointed out, “trigger” is a term originally used to refer to what sets off an episode for a PTSD sufferer. It did not take long for the word trigger to be misused after it left behind its purely clinical usage. I think of its misuse like the self-diagnosis of mental illness — its a cry for attention that does serious damage to the reputation of actual sufferers.

The meme-ification of the word trigger is not a good thing. The meme-ification of the word trigger is also reality. I think the term has been poisoned, and I think it’s irresponsible to try to use a buzzword (yes, “trigger warning” is absolutely a buzzword) to address such a serious and important topic in the first place.

I see lots of people using CW now, for “content warning”. We have had “content warnings” for decades, thanks to the MPAA. As far as I know, the only people who have serious beef with the MPAA are 16-year olds trying to sneak into Sausage Party. The MPAA even goes as far as to list the reasons for their ratings, which include things like sexual violence and gore. As far as I can tell, we only started to have an issue here when the word “trigger” left the realm of mental health.

Not every instance of objectionable content reaching a sensitive person is going to result in a PTSD-style panic attack — so why are we insisting on using the word “trigger” when discussing these situations?

So, yeah…linguistics are weird, and I think that the word “trigger” has essentially been ruined. Besides, it’s a one-size-fits-all solution to this complex problem which is rooted in the fact that all people are individuals with disjoint sets of experience. It seems like you really get to know and care about your students — rather than defending the term, I think it’s more important to defend the practice and avoid giving it such an easily-exploitable label.

PS: I really don’t mean this to be a challenge to anything you said. I loved the article and I think it’s really important for people to understand what TW actually is (treating people with respect) as opposed to what they believe it to be (duct tape). I just think that, with the way language works, we either need a new word, or we need to abandon the use of a buzzword to describe something so complex and personal.

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