No One Is Trigger “Happy”

Misinformation and misconception are getting in the way of a real discussion about trigger warnings.


Jennie Jarvie recently published an article on New Republic called “Trigger Happy.” She was specifically reacting to an Oberlin College document about triggers, containing suggestions for how faculty members should include trigger warnings in their classes and on their syllabi. An excerpt from Jarvie’s article, in which she quotes Oberlin’s suggested policy:

Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly” contribute to learning goals and “strongly consider” developing a policy to make “triggering material” optional. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, it states, is a novel that may “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”

A few years ago in 2010, Susannah Breslin wrote the following in her column at True/Slant:

After some in-depth research (like, half an hour, maybe?), I was able to conclude that, for whatever reason, the feminists are all over their TRIGGER WARNINGS, applying them like a Southern cook applies Pam cooking spray to an overused nonstick frying pan. It’s almost impressive, really. I guess the idea is that blog posts are TOTALLY SCARY, and if you are EASILY UPSET, if you see a TRIGGER WARNING coming, you can look away REALLY FAST, or click elsewhere, so you won’t, you know, FREAK THE FUCK OUT.

Jarvie’s article, just like Breslin’s before it, has lead to some conversations in other publications surrounding the possible ‘outbreak’ of trigger warnings. But the conversation is made more difficult by the fact that not everyone seems to be clear on the purpose and use of trigger warnings. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have come far beyond Breslin’s understanding of trigger warnings as a way to prevent feminists from freaking out on the Internet. Jarvie points to an article in the Huffington Post last year that employed a version of a trigger warning as evidence that they are “gaining momentum” — Soraya Chemaly published an article titled “Rape Has a Purpose,” which included the italicized text “Warning: This post contains graphic depictions of sexualized violence” before the body of the article.

Here’s Jarvie’s main introduction to her criticism of trigger warnings:

What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off. The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.

Jarvie points out in her own article what I consider to be one of the more interesting parts of the debate on trigger warnings, and which easy criticisms like Breslin’s ignore — they’re moving, from internet forums to other places for public discussion. I’m going to address some of her more specific concerns about trigger warnings later, but Jarvie is only half correct in saying that trigger warnings began on the internet. In reality, they are part of a much larger conversation — just one dialect in a language of consent and content warnings we’re willing to put on media we consume. It is also my position that a lot of what she identifies as fundamental problems with trigger warnings may actually be coming from a less-than-smooth transition out of the virtual space and into the real.

But first — what is a trigger warning?

To be incredibly general, a trigger warning is a warning text or tag suggesting that content to follow may be ‘triggering’ to people who have had certain experiences. By triggering, I mean it may include certain stimuli that could trigger (Merriam-Webster offers the definition “to initiate, actuate, or set off,” or “to cause (something) to start or happen”) a posttraumatic stress reaction. What I don’t mean is that the content will cause people to be offended or made angry by controversial material.

Jarvie correctly points out in her critique that the trigger warning as she understands it comes mainly from feminist spaces (blogs and forums, particularly) of the Internet. More recently, they have exploded over Tumblr and begun to move into mainstream media content, as evidenced by the Huffington Post article above. Their traditional function is to warn survivors of rape, assault, and eating disorders that the following content may contain upsetting or harmful material that could cause posttraumatic stress reactions or relapses. Tumblr even provides a PSA for those who search for “trigger warning” tags that offers resources and support. And these are just a few examples of populations that might be triggered — trigger warnings can also appear on posts that describe psychological states of people with certain mental health issues, posts that might depict self harm, and even discussions of racism or sexism.

When you search “trigger warning” on Tumblr, this PSA appears before you access your search results.

Moving these warnings out of niche spaces and into mainstream media outlets, as well as college campuses, is what has critics of trigger warnings upset. But as I was saying, we’re not unfamiliar with the concept of trigger warnings, even if we’ve never heard the specific term before (and many people haven’t). The idea of giving people a heads up on content exists everywhere. Even consider normal conversations with everyday people — maybe you don’t say ‘trigger warning’ to someone (or maybe you do!), but if you’re not insensitive or inconsiderate, you probably check in to make sure discussing difficult subjects isn’t upsetting to a friend or group of people you’re speaking with.

And trigger warnings aren’t some mythical Internet beast. They are a just one of many other practices we employ of checking in with each other to make sure we’re not being set off by certain content, or that content is appropriate for a particular sphere. Consider MPAA ratings on movies — a standardized set of grades based on content. Often a rating of PG-13 or above is accompanied by an explanation of the content that caused the rating, such as “sexualized violence.” Music labeled “explicit” or video games labeled “M for Mature” are some other examples. All serve as brief indications of the kind of content behind the label.

These are the kind of warnings we’re used to seeing.

Warnings on the Internet are useful and necessary because your content is going off in directions you can’t necessarily control, and you are trying to be mindful of that. Jarvie, and many others who are anti-trigger warning, say that in a college setting, a trigger warning is insulating, that it cuts off discussion and eliminates the possibility of exposure to new ideas and working through our discomfort together. She also sees trigger warnings as problematic because Oberlin’s policy suggests professors make changes or offer alternatives to syllabi to avoid confronting triggering content. Instead, students who may potentially be triggered should speak with a professor and make alternate arrangements.

So let’s unpack those two core issue with trigger warnings — overprotectiveness and censorship.

Oberlin did, in fact, publish a very complete and exhaustive policy suggesting trigger warnings appear on syllabi. The University of California at Santa Barbara also passed a resolution imploring the university to consider mandatory trigger warnings. Are these students being coddled and protected against the real world?

To answer that, I think we need to clarify a few things about trigger warnings. First of all, trigger warnings are useful for, but not ultimately aimed at, people who are angered or upset by difficult subjects such as rape, self-harm, racism, etc. But their goal and original intention is to say to people who may have post traumatic stress reactions when confronted with this content unexpectedly (or even expectedly) that they may want to evaluate whether they feel that confronting this content, right now, in this room, will be harmful to their own psychological health. Too often, avoiding posttraumatic stress is conflated with insulation from discomfort, or with avoiding offensive material, when in fact, trigger warnings have a much more specific goal in mind.

Critics also say that we are insulating people who’ve had traumatic experiences from exposure to troubling subject matter, when the simple fact is that they can’t really be protected from it in the real world. They say that continuing to use trigger warnings treats those people as though they were fragile and vulnerable, preventing them from recovering from trauma by shielding them unnecessarily. Jarvie goes even further, stating that trigger warnings contribute to our growing solipsism — a preoccupation with our own feelings and personal sensitivities. Words have no intrinsic danger, she says, and treating them as though they do contributes to the idea that we can and should bend the world to accommodate our own delicate emotions.

When we consider how language shapes our world, and our relationship to others around us, I think this position is flat out wrong, if not incredibly dangerous. But more than that, it misses the point of the warning, which is not about fear of words or descriptions, but of what those words or descriptions may provoke. Jarvie accepts that words provoke “intense reactions,” but says that there is no “rational basis” for determining their potential for harm. This creates a strange double standard — we are to accept the power of language to evoke memory and meaning when we study it in a university, but not when it might be producing a harmful effect?

Jarvie’s second criticism of Oberlin’s suggested policy is that it suggests professors should consider whether triggering material is vital to their syllabi, and, if not, they should pull it. To critics, this amounts to censorship, and challenges free speech.

Were this a mandatory policy, I would most certainly agree. However, what it actually amounts to is a thought exercise — and a useful one. Much like entertainment television producers (should) think carefully before including unnecessary violence or sexual assault in their storylines, would it cause an undue amount of hardship for professors to consider whether a particularly triggering text is really necessary in their coursework?

The answer can of course be yes, it is necessary. Things Fall Apart, is, in my opinion, an absolutely essential text that doesn’t just happen to contain extraneously triggering material. And if professors have to confront this kind of questioning when they create or review their syllabi, then they’ll be all the better prepared to have these conversations with students what might be triggering about material, and how that material fits into the larger context of the work. The idea of having to justify inclusion of these course materials provides us with an opportunity to think about this kind of content in context. It promotes conversations about, for example, whether depictions of rape are really necessary in a particular text, and how they contribute to the overall narrative.

And again, context matters. If you’re studying Things Fall Apart in a class like “Postcolonial Narratives,” you might have some idea that you’re going to be addressing issues of colonialism, racism, and religious persecution. “Introduction to Memoirs”? Maybe the context is a little more hazy.

Some sites like Jezebel — a Gawker media site that focuses on women — don’t use trigger warnings, but they justify that decision on the basis that they’ve made other allowances to help people decide what they can handle — Jezebel writes that they include enough information in the headline and description before the article to allow viewers to make an informed decision. One astute Jezebel commenter on the linked article notes that you can compare trigger warnings to Not Safe for Work (NSFW) labels: necessary when the content of a post might be surprising, but not so necessary if the context of the post (such as a porn website, or, her example, a post titled “Our favorite pictures of penises”) makes it clear the kind of content you’re going to be coming across.

(As an aside: if you’re interested in this issue, I’d encourage you to read the Jezebel piece as well as the comments, which isn’t something I’d usually suggest, but these are particularly insightful.)

Jarvie suggests that the girl who first brought trigger warnings up at Oberlin when she “felt forced” to sit through a film screening could have simply left the room. Or that students can make appointments with professors to discuss their triggers and alternate coursework. But is it really necessary for these students to identify themselves to us? Should the burden really fall back onto these students, and in such a closed community as a college campus, when a couple of words on a syllabus, or an announcement at the beginning of a class could go a long way toward helping people choose what they are ready to face and identify what they are not yet ready to deal with? What right do we have to choose what people can handle, just because we’re not willing to make a few small allowances?

There are a lot of concepts floated around in discussions of trigger warnings. There’s a lot of talk of censorship and a lot of talk of psychology, and much of it surrounds what a slippery slope trigger warnings might be. But I want to add to the conversation the values of compassion, courtesy, and also the right to privacy. I believe there should be an effort made to include trigger warnings where they’re necessary, even as we continue to discuss what actually needs a trigger warning in real life. Maybe through that conversation, we can arrive at some notion of what is truly psychologically evocative and really needs a trigger warning, and what could be served by just a greater willingness to be sensitive, aware, and open to discussion of new and difficult ideas.

However, we can’t do that right now, and it’s partly because of the science, or just the mere fact that human beings are incredibly complicated. We simply don’t know what could be triggering. Triggers are complex. Realistically, they could be anything. And they vary from person to person, trauma to trauma.

Is this a good enough reason to dismiss the idea of trigger warnings entirely? Sentiment in the anti-trigger warning camp seems to run that if we can’t predict what might trigger someone — and we can’t, and sometimes neither can that person — then we should avoid trying altogether. The view is that we are needlessly coddling our audience to offer a protection we’re not sure has a chance of succeeding.

Maybe you’ve heard the term safe zone? It’s usually used to describe respectful, supportive, open spaces for the LGBTQ community, but the term can be more generally applied to mean an atmosphere in which anyone can express themselves safely. In an article for The Guardian, feminist blogger Jill Filipovic takes the anti-trigger warning stance, stating that colleges aren’t intellectual or emotional safe zones, nor should they be. If she means that we should be faced with difficult and challenging problems to grapple with, she’s right. We should absolutely be faced with ideas that challenge our assumptions and be forced to wrestle with them while we’re in college.

But as some recent news stories have shown, colleges also have a disproportionately unhealthy attitude toward sexual assault, often institutionalized in college codes of conduct or methods of addressing sexual assault on campus. So while on the one hand you want students to grow and to change, you may also be faced with a population disproportionately affected by rape, sexual assault, eating disorders, and racism that institutional policy is failing to address. We want students — and administrations — to confront these problems, but at what cost?

Just because a trigger could be anything, should we resist the urge to mitigate harm? The proposed answer here is to eliminate trigger warnings, because the world is not a safe place, and warnings like these can’t keep us safe from everything, all the time.

…I mean, really? Can you identify any single other issue where the risks are weighed and such a small price is paid for the mental and emotional well being of an unknown number of people? Can you identify any single other issue where a large number of people willingly undertakes a system of warnings to prevent possible harm to another group of people with differing experiences to their own?

Courtesy of xkcd.

Does the phrase “spoilers” ring a bell?

Okay, so spoiler alerts get mocked, and there’s no doubt that some people get carried away, but if we’re being honest, most people comply, just like with Not Safe for Work labels — we agree that there’s a need to protect someone in some way from this content. In the course of an average conversation, you might not say trigger warning but I can bet you’ve asked someone if they’ve seen the finale of Breaking Bad or if they’ve ever watched Lost. Not to mention the years we all had to keep quiet about the fact that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time in The Sixth Sense. Did I spoil that one for you? Sorry.

When Jennie Jarvie was interviewed about her article on “On the Media,” Bob Garfield asked her if she suffered from any kind of separation anxiety. Jarvie answered no, and Brooke Gladstone continued with, “because I have to warn you, I’m about to say goodbye.” They laugh in the interview, but do you think Bob Garfield or Brooke Gladstone would have batted an eye before issuing a spoiler warning discussing popular media content?

The fact is, we adhere to these labels — NSFW, spoilers — out of common courtesy, and not because we think someone will genuinely be harmed by our revealing a secret from a plotline. With our consumption of media content changing, they’re our new community rules. And nobody wants to get a friend in trouble at work if they mistakenly open our funny, but slightly inappropriate emails at their desk. If we’re capable of this level of concern for each other, and for Internet strangers, isn’t it acceptable that we might grow that concern into a useful language for being courteous about each other’s possible triggers?

It’s a societal norm, now, to make sure that people have the choice whether to watch content time-shifted or not. Which brings me to my point:

The issue is choice.

There’s a clear sense that the current feeling is that trigger warnings are overused, and the definition of trigger is being expanded well beyond its original, wholly psychological intent. But fundamentally the issue at stake with trigger warnings is letting people make choices about their own psychological and emotional wellbeing. We provide a small service — a little warning note — and anyone who feels that right now, exposure to certain stimuli might do more harm than good gets to take a little step back without having to out themselves. They protect their privacy, and reserve the right to confront these issues on their own terms. Overall, this discussion is not about who gets to say what, when. It’s about who has to listen, to what and when. Free speech is hardly at issue here.

So yes, perhaps right now trigger warnings are undergoing a pretty significant boom. But it’s important to remember that language changes, and this is an evolving practice. It may be that in a couple of years we are able to clearly identify which trigger warnings are really necessary to prevent posttraumatic stress reactions. But until then, isn’t it worth stepping outside of your own experiences to be mindful of others, even if you feel inconvenienced by the prospect?

Identifying trigger warnings isn’t just useful for those who feel triggered, it’s useful to create conversations too, and to decrease the stigma of addressing issues that may be caught up with mental illness. When you create a community that wants to responsibly use trigger warnings because it cares about its members safety and wellbeing, you are encouraging trust, openness, and an understanding of the power of language. You encourage people to examine how seemingly innocent speech and images can be read by those with other experiences.

Of course we need to be careful. We need to be sure that dissenting voices aren’t silenced, that trigger warnings or the language of triggering isn’t used to shut down conversations, and that using trigger warnings doesn’t become a token of responsible behavior that has no follow through. We want to follow positive examples of how communities use trigger warnings to foster discussion by making sure everyone is able to participate fully.

This is a practice designed for one medium that is now moving into the next; sure, it’s experiencing some culture shock, but I think in this case, there are easy, negotiable compromises to be made that respect everyone’s choices and wellbeing. Just remember that there are better conversations to be had surrounding this topic than whether, as Breslin suggests, the feminists are scared of the Internet. Use them as a chance to examine your preconceptions, put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and figure out how we can all coexist without harming one another.


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