On trigger warnings

Dear Dad,

Have you been following this debate on implementing trigger warnings in colleges and universities? What are your thoughts on it?

My guess is, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, that you think it’s another example of liberal over-sensitivity? You wouldn’t be alone. Critics of the suggestion to add trigger warnings even liken it to censorship.

Unfortunately, the problem with the whole debate on trigger warnings is that it directs the discussion away from trauma to vague accusations of “hypersensitivity.” Opponents believe trigger warnings will impede teachers’ ability to instruct and give students an excuse to opt out of class work. But this is a puffed up strawman of the trigger warning request that directs focus away from students’ well-being toward a dark slippery slope of a future educational system.

Trigger warnings, which simply tell people that upcoming content could trigger previous traumas, have their origin in blogs and feminist websites, but the college debate started at UCSB, when student Bailey Loverin, herself a victim of sexual assault, witnessed potentially triggering content in a class and requested an academic senate resolution asking teachers to implement trigger warnings for the benefit of students who have experienced trauma (and with rampant sexual assault in colleges, there are many).

Let me put this in very personal terms:

Remember when I was 15, and that adult man very close to our family hit on me?  And how for years I couldn’t be touched by men, or be alone with them, or stand too near to them? Maybe you didn’t notice, but I couldn’t even stand to sit next to you on the couch to watch a movie. You, who were not the man who hurt me.

Mostly, I’ve recovered and dealt with that phobia. But last week I got into an elevator and an overly friendly older man got in after me, and planned to get off on the same floor. The thought of being alone with him in a small, slow-moving elevator for four floors terrified me. I started to panic, ducked out of the elevator and ran up the stairs. It took me a half hour to relax fully, and I cried later that evening.

This is a mild example, and obviously there is not trigger warning for men in elevators. But my point is that past trauma can be dredged up unexpectedly, and when it is, it can be extremely painful and disruptive to one’s life.

A request for trigger warnings is not a demand that teachers censor their syllabus, or stop teaching certain materials. It is instead a plea to allow students to adequately prepare for their lessons. A warning that a book contains graphic sexual content could allow a rape victim to mentally prepare herself for the passage; a note that a movie contains graphic physical violence could allow an abuse victim to emotionally prepare himself for the scene. Or, if necessary, the student could skip over a portion of the work, at their own discretion.

But they won’t be triggered into a panic attack, or be left with anxiety that could follow them for the rest of the day, week, month, or semester. Trigger warnings aren’t about censorship. They’re about making campuses more welcoming to all students. They’re about prioritizing a student’s education instead of a professor’s right to make their students uncomfortable.

In my French literature class, (trigger warning: sexual assault) we had to read a book in which the main character was sexually assaulted by a stranger. At first, she told him no but didn’t resist when he pulled her into a building. He then pinned her against a wall and forced her to touch him. My professor insisted that the assault was “ambiguous,” that it wasn’t clear whether or not she was a willing participant. His prodding in class was deliberately meant to make us uncomfortable, and a class that was supposed to be about modern French literature instead became a class in which I was constantly uncomfortable and afraid of my professor, who didn’t understand consent. This was disruptive to my education, and marred my experience of French novels.

Education should be about learning, not fear. And that’s why I support trigger warnings.




One thought on “On trigger warnings

  1. Pingback: Trigger Happy | Father of a Feminist

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