Trigger Warnings: A Discussion

Just in time for back-to-school, three writers at ACRO who are involved in high school or college instruction unpack the rhetoric of the “trigger warning”.

Trigger warnings began as a way to tag texts that may provoke a reader’s PTSD, but they have become widely used in tagging texts that contain content that ranges from offensive to traumatic. What began in social justice forums in the blog-sphere has made its way into discourse about the academy at large, leading to a call for the re-examination of the pedagogical value of certain canonical texts, the role of the professor and student in a shifting higher-education system, and the ethics of certain kinds of representation.

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In our own pedagogies, we define “trigger warning” as a warning that we as instructors issue to our students about content that could potentially trigger PTSD as it is defined in the DSM. However the the media uses “trigger” or “trigger warning” in descriptions of any content that incites general negative reactions. It’s become a very polarizing term.

KS: Critics have several typical objections to the use of trigger warnings. They argue that trigger warnings coddle the millennials who treat any discomfort as something to be avoided at all costs and who treat being offended as being attacked; that they are a new iteration of the PC Police to censor professors; that pre-emptive warnings remove intellectual rigor and intellectual risk from academic discourse and some students may use trigger warnings as an excuse not to read assigned texts; warnings cater to those millennials’ capitalist sensibilities by allowing them to control course content through their emotional needs to be “comfortable”.

ST: Arguments in favor of so-called trigger warnings include the need for creating safe spaces, for sensitivity to the various experiences college students bring to the classroom, empowering students to know their own boundaries and have more agency in their own education, they create the opportunity for critical discourse surrounding difficult texts by highlighting material that might be challenging.

EL: The trigger warning becomes a straw-man. A way to talk about problems of censorship, academic freedom, the place and function of the university etc. without actually having to deal with the systems that have produced those problems. We blame the over-sensitive social justice Tumblrverse rather than the neoliberalization of higher education. We blame instructors for being too concerned with their students’ comfort to the detriment of their intellectual growth rather than an increasingly corporatized university system that treats its students as consumers and does all it can to protect them from discomfort — that, in fact, often penalizes its teachers for the kinds of discomfort students encounter in the process of unlearning old ways of knowing.

ST: “Triggering,” however, is a very specific psychological phenomenon. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Illnesses (DSM) defines PTSD as: first, a reaction to encounters with “actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation.” To be diagnosed with PTSD, the person must have either experienced trauma directly, been witness to the trauma, learned that the traumatic event happened to a close friend or family member, or been exposed to “first-hand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event (not through media, pictures, television or movies).” The second criterion is a set of symptoms, including intrusive thoughts and constant heightened awareness; the symptoms must in some way interfere with the trauma victim’s day-to-day life. It is in the interest of students who are suffering from PTSD, and not students who simply wish to avoid uncomfortable conversations, that it is important for teachers to warn students about potential triggers. Of course, not all triggers can be predicted, but the common causes of trauma identified above are a good place to start.

EL: So this is why people sometimes dismiss trigger warnings. When things like “racism” and “sexism” are being tagged with trigger warnings they start to look a little silly.

ST: Right. Avoiding anything with “racism” or “sexism” is ridiculous, and censorship — even of graphic content — does not belong in academia. But there should be room for students who have experienced trauma to take care of themselves, and warnings about graphic content can help with that.

KS: So I think the term “graphic content” could use a little unpacking here. As people in the English Department of a major university, we spend a lot of our time teaching and talking about rhetoric and language and less time talking images. Are the texts we usually deal with potentially “graphic content”, or is that a term only really applicable to images (with respect to the ways we process images we are shown, versus images we create from visualizing texts that we read)? Or perhaps: what should be the role of trigger warnings on our syllabi?

ST: Texts unfold slowly; images do not. While I think there is use for trigger warnings around texts, they are much more necessary for images and movies/television. We perceive and react to images much more quickly than we do text, and, when it comes to showing a movie clip in class, a small paragraph on the syllabus might not cut it. Still, it would take very little time and detract very little, if anything, to say “there is a rape scene in this movie.”

EL: I don’t understand the angst over putting trigger warnings on syllabi. A small paragraph somewhere after the attendance policy with a quick heads-up so students can take care of themselves does not take up much time and doesn’t need to be dwelt on. I sometimes think that opponents think we spend half our time in the classroom metabolizing our feelings rather than learning.

KS: I agree with you. Putting a trigger warning on your syllabus helps set the tone for the course and, like that attendance policy, clarifies what students can expect from the class (i.e. will be asked to read challenging, often problematic, texts in a critical way while also taking care of themselves). I go back and forth between issuing trigger warnings on individual texts though. For example, in the course on zombies that I taught this spring, I did not warn students every time a text contained graphic violence because I hoped my course title “Zombie Bodies” implied that there would be violent content. On the other hand, when I taught a course about vigilantes, I warned students about the sexual violence in Watchmen, because nothing in the course title, description, or previously studied material would indicate that sexual violence would be part of the content. Despite the relative success of this way of doing things, I’m always looking for other ways of addressing violent content in a way that encourages students to be critical but to also feel safe (but not necessarily comfortable) in the classroom. Discomfort is intellectually productive because it forces us to confront the ways that we are implicated in the maintenance of systems that feed on violence.

ST: Exactly. Preserving discomfort in the classroom isn’t about “growing a backbone.” Discomfort is an incredibly productive starting point for critical conversations.

EL: This whole discussion actually brings up a question that feels in some ways more fundamental to me: what does it mean for a classroom to be a “safe space,” especially in the context of the university? We can never know what things will trigger someone, and we can never really guarantee that a classroom will be “safe” to everyone. All sorts of unexpected things happen in the course of learning new and difficult material, and an otherwise collegial classroom can turn hostile and back again in the course of a meeting or two. I don’t think it’s possible or even desirable that instructors spend all their time trying to preempt any possibility that someone will feel triggered or unsafe. Instead, we should be spending our time giving our students the tools to deal with it if it happens. That might mean both setting standards for behavior when dealing with uncomfortable material, but also helping them metabolize their own reactions to that material in a self-conscious and productive way.

ST: I agree — a “safe space” is more about the ability to encounter difficult material and experiment with new and uncomfortable ideas. That said, can we stop saying “feel triggered”? I know it’s pretty much impossible once a term has gotten so much buzz to restore it to any kind of specific or scientific meaning, but I keep returning to the importance of understanding the difference between feeling uncomfortable — even extremely uncomfortable — and an uncontrollable, often physical reaction to a stimulus (e.g., panic attacks). But it is also true that beyond the obvious — scenes of child abuse, rape, etc — it is impossible to predict what may or may not trigger someone.

EL: I think you’re totally right. The scientific definition of “triggering” has lost a lot of its descriptive power in its transformation into a buzzword. It will always have an association with vague bad feelings associated with uncomfortable memories from here on out. We will never reclaim that. Which means, I think, that we should think about how we can do the work of trigger warnings even if we don’t use the phrase.

ST: Maybe just dropping the word “trigger” and saying “warning” would be enough to move away from the political meanings the word has accrued? Perhaps getting the buzzy associations out of the way and focusing on basic decency — whether that comes in the form of brief syllabus warnings, one-on-one exchanges with students or verbal warnings at the beginning of a class — would allow us to talk more about the difficult conversations necessary in the classroom.

KS: The intersections between the criticism of trigger warnings as a way to censor professors and the university-as-business paradigm could be the subject of its own post. It may be useful to briefly address the fear that students use “being triggered” or being made to read texts that are unsettling or uncomfortable as a way to assert themselves as consumers in the university economy and that this practice leads professors towards more conservative syllabi.

EL: I think that fear is relatively unfounded, but I also think that that fear must be contextualized within the increasingly corporate model of higher ed in which most university instructors don’t have the privilege of tenure. When student evaluations can be the determining factor in an instructor’s continued employment, they may be less willing to deal with material that might challenge students past their comfort zone.

KS: Yeah, like so much of the discourse around trigger warnings, the objections are actually not really about professors having a problem with warning students about potentially triggering texts, but about the ways the university is changing in response to these neoliberal, corporate models of higher ed.

Have you encountered trigger warnings? What do you think about the debates surrounding their use? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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