Triggering: Preventing normal function by causing a person to relive past trauma.
I have been engaging in the ongoing debate around trigger warnings in a very limited way for a straightforward, if judgmental reason: I do not think the debate is being had on behalf of the ideas it tries to claim jurisdiction over (yes, I know, I really like using the word “jurisdiction.” Mainly because it has the word “dick” in the middle). There is a simple solution to the question of trigger warnings, and the fact that we have not embraced it seems to me to suggest that we’re in this thing for the wrong reasons to begin with. Let’s take a look.
The question is, purportedly, whether or not we should institutionalize the use of trigger warnings by creating a policy at the institutional level that promotes their use in the classroom. We will start with the assumption that there is nothing inherently wrong with trigger warnings, because the people who argue that the world is simply an unsafe place and folks need to learn how to live in an unsafe world are obviously correct, but are not really saying anything about trigger warnings. Some people drink tea as a coping mechanism and you don’t hear anyone saying that people do not deserve to drink tea because they should just get used to an unsafe world. The fact of the unsafe world is the premise for the trigger warnings, not the argument against them.
The argument allegedly for trigger warning policy cannot be pinned down because the various strands contradict each other:
– Some supporters claim that trigger warnings are a coping mechanism for people who experience PTSD, and are only legitimate within the context of a psychiatric diagnosis. In this case, in order to be entitled to trigger warnings, you also need what is essentially a ‘doctor’s note.’ Moreover, it is understood that the trigger warning allows the student to engage with the material in a different way that is better for him or her, but does not excuse the student from engaging with the material.
– Some supporters claim that teachers or professors should ask at the beginning of the semester for students to provide introductory information, including what, if any trigger warnings they would like. Detractors assert that students should not feel obligated to reveal any of their past traumas to teachers/professors. It is not clear whether or not, in this case, students should be allowed to simply not engage with the material. The definition of what is a trauma, and what constitutes coping with it is entirely decided by the teacher and the student in this case.
– Finally, I have seen a few arguments that support trigger warnings for the express purpose of allowing students to avoid engaging with material they might find triggering. It should be noted again that “triggering” does not mean “uncomfortable” or “upsetting,” but rather, “preventing a person from normal function.”
The argument allegedly against trigger warning policy is that any policy which encouraged trigger warnings would have to have a definition of what constitutes “triggering,” and gives easy rise to institutional bias or discrimination. Also, frequently, the “unsafe world, get over it” argument that I rejected above. There is something to be said for the fact that universities are explicitly places for freedom of ideas, including offensive ones, but not much — we live in a time when pursuing education past high school is mandatory for many people, and it’s plain silly to say that people who have to be there have to be traumatized. This argument carries into the individual classroom as well: either students have total authority over deciding which content they will or will not engage in on the basis of their own past traumas, they have a doctor’s note, or the teacher ends up having to make a call about what is “legitimately” traumatic.
The trouble across all these arguments for and against is that it is difficult to design a system for the administration of trigger warnings, less than whether or not trigger warnings are in and of themselves worthwhile. The solution to this problem strikes me as pretty obvious. Simply create a policy which requires annotated syllabi. Providing small summaries of what to expect in the media that students are required to engage with can only help them contextualize their work for the purposes of the class. And, by default, such a syllabus would also solve the problem of “trigger warnings” by offering short summaries of the content the class will be working with. Not to mention, a good percentage of my professors would have been better professors if they’d visualized the class well enough in advance to know what we were going to be reading (GUYS COME ON THAT IS [PART OF] YOUR JOB). Given the straightforwardness of this solution, one wonders why it’s still an argument at all. There shouldn’t be anything fundamentally controversial about summarizing. Yawn.
So the question I have is why are we still arguing about this? And the answer that I come up with is: People are arguing about experience of identity, instead of the administration of identity. It doesn’t matter what you personally think a traumatic experience should or should not be and it doesn’t matter what you personally think feeling safe should or should not be like. I mean — it matters — but not to this debate and not to questions about categories of identity. We can all agree that no one should be subject to whatever it is they experience as trauma or lack of safety. We can also probably mostly agree that the fact that no one should doesn’t ever mean no one will. Therefore, there is no actual debate about the worth of trigger warnings, because even if they’re only effective a small percentage of the time, that’s still a small percentage of a problem we all recognize being solved. But when we argue about the experience of identity, it becomes a lot more personal: suddenly it’s about who gets to call their own experiences legitimate, which is not an okay position to be put in or to put someone else in, at all, ever.