For those who participate in online discussion forums, you have doubtless encountered what are termed “trigger warnings.” There seem to be two schools of thought about them. One school says they are necessary to protect individuals in discussions from the emotional distress of reliving past traumatic events. Another school says that everything’s becoming a trigger warning, that they aren’t necessary or effective, and that we’ve become too sensitive, too easily traumatized.
Let’s talk about trigger warnings. First, what are they?
Trigger warnings are meant to give people with post-traumatic stress disorder, and others who have experienced trauma, an idea of the content they’re about to encounter. This is supposed to prepare those readers or viewers to cope with a significant, possibly debilitating, emotional reaction.
Online discussion forums are just one place trigger warnings happen. An article in vox explains the impact that trigger warnings are having in academia. The article presents a helpful case study for how trigger warnings alter the conversations we have. While they may reduce trauma, they also heighten awareness sensitive subjects, and that heightened awareness can reduce willingness to speak freely when dealing with challenging subjects.
Is all this avoidance worth it? Do trigger warnings even protect people? Are they effective? From the vox article:
avoiding triggers isn’t considered a healthy coping mechanism for people with PTSD; in fact, it’s a symptom of the disorder. A core purpose of therapy is making it possible for individuals to reduce their sensitivity to triggers. And there’s no scientific evidence that trigger warnings help people avoid panic attacks or flashbacks in the short term
Some feel that the notion that these discussions can cause PTSD is an exaggeration. And yet, that could easily be the same routine minimization of trauma that has prevailed in society since time immemorial. We minimize pain that doesn’t affect us. We ignore trauma that can’t touch us. And we justify the impacts we have on others when we offend or wound them through our ignorance of their circumstances and pain. Particularly as relates to sexual trauma, ignoring or minimizing the pain of victims is a long-standing tradition whether it’s blaming the victim or turning a blind eye to the prevalence of sexual assault in society.
A 2007 study in Virginia found women who had been sexually assaulted were nearly four times more likely to develop PTSD than those who had not; more than 30 percent of women who had been assaulted as adults met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
Studies estimate that about 20 percent of women experience sexual assault on campus. Those numbers are disputed, and not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to get PTSD. But it still suggests that college students are far more traumatized than many people might think.
What about inoculation? Isn’t it better to expose trauma victims to these thorny topics without protecting them so that they can deal with their issues head on? While it may be true that confronting one’s demons is better than avoiding the source of one’s trauma indefinitely, a trigger warning allows readers to be prepared for the content they are about to read, so that they can engage with these topics or choose not to do so.
As I think back to my own college days, it seems to me that about 75% of the literature I read toward my English degree would have to come with a trigger warning. D.H. Lawrence. James Joyce. Thomas Pyncheon. Even Chaucer and Shakespeare. It’s hard for me to think of literature that wouldn’t require a trigger warning. The vox article points out this problem and that it signals a change in how students are perceived and in how they perceive themselves.
Trigger warnings, in other words, aren’t uncommon for two groups of people: paying customers and children. This is doubly true when the paying customers are children.
And the other risk with trigger warnings is that in addition to protecting people from trauma, they also create unintended consequences. The most obvious unintended consequence seems to be that insistence on trigger warnings fuels the drama triangle. The Karpman drama triangle is a psychological pattern in which individuals see others in primarily three roles: persecutor, victim or rescuer. There are psychological rewards with casting oneself in the role of either victim or rescuer and painting others as persecutor, but those short-term rewards come at the price of human relationships and productive interactions. They also make it easier to avoid dealing with challenging opinions or difficult topics. Those cast as persecutors often feel misunderstood or misrepresented; they begin to see themselves as victims, and thus the drama continues.
“The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual,” the American Association of University Professors wrote in August 2014. “It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement”
And yet, it seems like good old Christian virtue to put others’ needs first and to do something so simple as to care about their pain and to try to avoid triggering their disorders? Do we need people to be challenged in discussion forums full of amateurs where they have less access to support? If we are going to inoculate people and challenge them, shouldn’t it be in a more supportive environment like therapy, not discussions with random strangers on the internet?
From the perspective of the universities, though, avoiding triggering topics significantly lessens the ability to discuss academic topics like history, literature and art. But trigger warnings don’t really avoid those topics. They just frame them as potentially dangerous to those who have been traumatized.
College students, particularly those who are in their late teens and early 20s, are expected to act like adults while being supervised like children; as the price of college goes up, they’re also increasingly seen as paying customers, and they’re starting to act like it.
The argument about trigger warnings isn’t just about trauma and mental health. It’s about the demands students increasingly feel empowered to make and the confusion universities are facing in responding.
Unfortunately, those who have not been traumatized are often the least able to identify what topics might cause another pain. Mormons in particular have a very ham-fisted view of offense, blaming those who take offense rather than seeking to avoid giving offense. Taking offense in and of itself seems to be a personal indictment in our culture, a character weakness. Being tactless or rude is often mistaken for a strength. Certainly we could all try just a little more to be aware of others and to be patient of both those who have been traumatized as well as those who mistakenly give offense.