Trigger warning warnings

The New York Times has hit a nerve

Trigger warnings are starting to rear their heads in the halls of universities. Judging by the response so far, it appears that this is The Worst Thing Ever.

But let's look at what a trigger warning is for.

First: a trigger warning is not some new version of the PMRC warning sticker. It serves as a more valuable notice to people who are mentally and emotionally sensitive to certain content.


Rather than simply labeling material as "explicit" (a term that conveys very little), trigger warnings are a quick, useful way of advising readers or viewers that there may be something that will resonate with them to the point where they will not be able to experience the text- or that they should prepare for being confronted with something psychologically triggering.

A trigger warning is not a "do not enter" sign.

At least for many people. It's more like a safety notice. If you're going into an area where ear or eye protection is required, then you should probably heed those warnings. Rather that springing discussion of rape, violence, systems of oppression on others it may not be a bad idea to give someone a little heads up. People who experience traumatic events are not completely damaged or forever incapable of reading certain texts. But it's also not fair to presume that everyone can "just deal" with content that may be triggering.

This is not an indictment against good literature or to say that certain subjects are taboo or out-of-bounds. In fact, survivors of trauma should be able to discuss what they experience and how their world has been altered by their experiences. Their readings of text are just as valid.

This also is not about "being offended"- there is a huge difference between being offended or being intellectually challenged and being psychologically traumatized. It's as much the difference between a food preference and a serious food allergy. Forcing someone to try your pecan pie who is deathly allergic to nuts is not "proving a point," it's downright dangerous.

A professor that embraces the utility of trigger warnings is giving their entire student population the ability to face curriculum with a heads up for those who may not be aware of certain sensitivities. We also don't want to force out people in groups who are usually marginalized. Perhaps a first step for some of them is to be acknowledged on the syllabus.

 The tyranny of trigger warnings in action

The tyranny of trigger warnings in action

While reading comments is always a rather depressing endeavor, at least some of the commenters seem to understand what's really at the heart of the matter.

This is an interesting issue that exposes a new tension between academic freedom and mental health. 

While the specifics of determining which material warrants such warnings would undoubtedly be tricky, it is absolutely worth acknowledging that PTSD is a mental health issue that, like any health issue, rightfully deserves accommodation. 

The truly unpleasant realization one has when reading the backlash to trigger warnings is how completely unconvinced these people are of the violence and struggle that some people live with.

Perhaps the more disturbing thought is that we live in a world where there are far more damaged and hurt people around us than we'd care to acknowledge.