An explanation and defense of trigger warnings

Trigger warning: This post discusses rape and suicide in the context of PTSD.

I came across this article (and this response to it) while looking up something else and, well, it pissed me off. So instead of writing a post about the election, which I don’t really want to think about right now, I’m going to write about why authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are idiots.

First, brief background on where I am coming from: My mother has PTSD and I have terrifying childhood memories of seeing her triggered by certain things. I also have PTSD, and was actually triggered once by a book that we read and discussed in college (I mention this since colleges are the authors’ focus – I’d have appreciated a trigger warning on that book). I used to self-harm, and I still find certain content related to self-harm to be triggering  – in the sense of making me want to do it again – even though that was over a decade ago.

On to the article. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that college students nowadays are overly sensitive, that free speech is being suppressed on college campuses in the name of political correctness, and that trigger warnings are bad and are a form of coddling. I’m only going to address the trigger warnings aspect.

A trigger warning is a statement that something (often a book, movie, blog post etc) has content which may trigger acute psychological distress in SOME people. Now, people can be triggered by all sorts of things – smells, holidays, buildings. Life is triggering. You can’t put warnings on everything. If you know your individual triggers, and they are at all avoidable, you can try to work around them. For instance, I find Thanksgiving triggering, therefore I no longer celebrate Thanksgiving. I still get a little depressed in the week leading up to it, but it’s not as bad as if I had to actually go celebrate Thanksgiving with other people and pretend to be thankful when what I really want to do is cry and watch movies and sleep until the stupid day is over for another year.

But there is actually a big difference between a trigger like Thanksgiving – which is triggering only because of its association with traumatic events – and a trigger that is inherently triggering, i.e. it deals directly with the trauma itself.

Imagine, for instance, that there was a holiday called Rape Day. And on this holiday, everyone gets together and reads graphic descriptions of rape, and then stage rape scenes, while drinking pineapple cocktails. Rape Day is inherently triggering to rape survivors (which is not to say that there aren’t survivors out there who wouldn’t find it triggering, but for those who are triggered, it is because of the content of the holiday rather than its association).

No one is suggesting that associative triggers should have warnings; only inherent triggers. In the case of Rape Day, the warning is pretty much in the name. But now suppose it was called Pineapple Cocktail Day.

Now, imagine you’re a recent rape survivor. You are invited to a Pineapple Cocktail Day party at someone’s house. You assume, reasonably, that Pineapple Cocktail Day is simply an excuse to get together and drink pineapple cocktails. So you show up at this person’s house in the evening, and walk in, and there is what appears to be a rape going on in the living room with everyone watching and chatting, unconcerned… you are horrified. You are confused. You are suddenly reliving your own experience in the worst way. You were unprepared for this, you don’t understand what’s happening, you want to go home but don’t know if you can safely drive because you’re so upset, and you don’t have any plan for backup transportation …

Wouldn’t it have been nice if the friend who invited you had said, “Oh, by the way, at this party we’ll be reading about rape and staging rape scenes”?

I’m not trying to give anyone holiday or party ideas. Obviously, a holiday about rape is a horrible, horrible idea and anyone who would go to such a party has some issues. But when you have PTSD, reading a book or a movie that relates directly to your trauma can be as alarming and overwhelming as showing up at a Rape Day party with no warning. And the casual response of other people to this thing that is so traumatizing to you can be just as disturbing. And it can have tragic consequences. I personally know of a college student who committed suicide immediately after watching part of Lolita with her roommates. She had survived child sexual abuse; something about the movie, or her classmates watching it perhaps, tapped into something that was too much for her, circumvented the means she had used to survive.

A trigger warning is not censorship. It is not the same as removing a book or movie from the library or from a reading list. It doesn’t say “Don’t read this” or “Don’t watch this.” It’s a heads up.  It’s information. It allows people to make an informed choice to read or not to read. Maybe you want to watch the movie, but you’re too fragile on this particular night. Since when is giving people information and letting them decide a form of coddling?

The critical letters from readers (who actually have psychiatric conditions) that are quoted in the response here all make excellent points. I am disgusted by the authors’ responses.

In one of these responses, Haidt says:

I teach in New York City. Suppose that part of my teaching was to take students on field trips all around the city. Suppose further that every time we went to The Bronx, we took along a police escort and an ambulance. Just in case. And suppose that I told students that they didn’t have to go to the Bronx, if it would make them feel unsafe. What would students learn? They’d come to fear The Bronx, and the people who live there.

OK, except this analogy is utter bullshit. Allow me to offer a better analogy:

You’re a teacher in NYC and you know that some of your students may be in a witness protection program due to a crime they witnessed in the Bronx. Of course, you don’t know which students they are, or even that there are any, but you know that a trip to the Bronx may expose them to being found by the people who want to kill them. Therefore, instead of the surprise field trip to the Bronx that you were planning, you tell your students the day before: “We are taking a non-mandatory field trip to the Bronx tomorrow. Let me know if you would like to be excused.”

That’s all a trigger warning is. Really.

Another response from Haidt:

I can see that trigger warnings would help some people, in the short run, to avoid painful memories. If there were evidence that trigger warnings were helpful in the long run then I would be much more sympathetic to their use in the limited way that Ms. Liddle suggests. But Greg and I think that the case is much stronger that in the long run, the use of trigger warnings is bad for people who have suffered trauma.

First of all, again, a trigger warning is not about “avoiding painful memories.” The memories are there, OK? And the associative triggers that I mentioned earlier are there. It’s about avoiding an overwhelming, debilitating psychological response that may make you a danger to yourself. Because being curled up on the floor of a bathroom, feeling like you are falling down a black hole and thinking of the best ways to hurt or kill yourself is an experience some of us would actually like to avoid, if possible. (Hard to believe, I know.)

Second, and in line with that, saying that trigger warnings help some people “in the short run” ignores the potential for suicide or serious self-injury as a result of trauma. Being helped “in the short run” is pretty damn good if it keeps you alive long enough to work through some of that trauma. Right?

Finally, when a person with PTSD says “I find trigger warnings helpful” and you respond with abstractions about what research shows, you are condescending to and patronizing this person much more than any trigger warning can do. You are saying, “You might think this is helpful to you, but you’re actually wrong. I know what’s best for you. I have a degree and I study this stuff. Now go work through your issues in a way that doesn’t require anybody else to think about them.”

It is, to use another term the authors despise, a big fat microaggression.

I know: it’s fun, and easy, to make people’s vulnerabilities look stupid by picking out the most egregious related examples you can think of and lumping them together as if they’re the same thing. “Silly liberal college students with their silly trauma. They’re good for a laugh and a bit of attention to our articles. Too bad they can’t take the joke.”


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