So “trigger warnings” are back in the news again.

I’ve been reading along for months while concertedly refraining from making any sort of public comment on the discussion, but now I feel kind of obligated since it keeps raging on and I’ve already participated with a certain degree of vigor on closed forums and in Facebook feeds.

This post will consist of two parts: the first in which I express my personal views on “trigger warnings,” and the second in which I offer a brief cultural analysis of the “trigger warning” in hopes of shifting the collective conversation in a new direction.


One of the people who spearheaded the resurrection of “trigger warnings”–specifically their use on college campuses–is a sophomore named Bailey Loverin who attends UC Santa Barbara. Loverin has articulated her arguments in favor of implementing campus-wide policies apropos of “trigger warnings” on such national platforms as the NY Times and USA Today:

From music to movies, content and trigger warnings are everywhere. We accept them as a societal standard. 

With these introductory sentences, the author concedes that the impetus behind her support of “trigger warnings” on syllabi stems, at least in part, from having grown up in a society in which “warning labels” appear before films, on music albums, on food, and so on. Ms. Loverin is so used to the ubiquitous presence of warning labels that extending the presence of these labels even further seems not only “natural,” but positive.

“Warning labels” in the United States are a relatively recent trend which began in 1938 under the Federal Food, Drug and, Cosmetic Act. Although they started with food, they quickly spread to tobacco, alcohol, and then finally to music in the late eighties and early nineties. The current ratings system employed for movies also has its roots in the 1990s.

What Loverin does not acknowledge in her opening paragraphs is that the reason these content warnings began to proliferate was due to the uptick in frivolous lawsuits in the U.S. and the desire of companies to engage in what is essentially “defensive advertising”—strategically warning “consumers” about any and all possible risks associated with their products or services beforehand so that said “consumers” cannot sue companies for millions of dollars, claiming the companies “failed to warn” them of any particular risk factor.

A recent frivolous lawsuit provides a classic example of this phenomenon (and makes me wonder if we’ll soon see a new set of “warning labels” on sneakers): a Portland pimp, Sirgiorgio Clardy, sued Nike for 100 million dollars after being convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison for beating to death a john who had refused to pay him for one of his prostitute’s services. Clardy’s argument?

[…] Nike, Chairman Phil Knight and other executives failed to warn consumers that the shoes could be used as a weapon to cause serious injury or death.

Clardy’s lawsuit against Nike is pending.

Regarding this aspect of Loverin’s apology for the “trigger warning,” I am inclined to agree with Tressie McMillan Cottom, who writes:

[…] the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

You can read McMillan Cottom’s full post on the subject here.

What bothers me about the “trigger warning” is this: it implies that it is my responsibility, as a speaker and writer, to preemptively modulate the emotional and psychological responses of anyone who might hear or read my words—rather than the responsibility of those individuals to learn how to modulate and/or regulate their own emotional responses to my words (and to the world in general).

More importantly, though, it seems to me that the mass deployment of the “trigger warning” threatens to perpetuate a cycle of victimization and helplessness: people are allowed to bypass material that might disturb them emotionally or psychologically, and thus potentially avoid ever learning how to modulate their own thoughts, reactions, and emotions when confronted unexpectedly with disturbing stimuli.  In this sense, “trigger warnings” are the helicopter parents of language: in seeking to protect, they inadvertently enable large numbers of people to remain walking wounds of unhealed trauma.

In fact much of the available literature on trauma and PTSD advocates against the kind of maladaptive coping mechanism to which the “trigger warning” caters. One particularly apt passage of the Handbook of PTSD: Science and Practice (2010), flatly states:

Negative reinforcement of fear through behavioral avoidance is the primary process that is postulated to sustain, and even promote, the maladaptive fear response. Typical behavior avoidance manifested by traumatized individuals includes avoidance of stimuli associated with the traumatized event, not disclosing or discussing the traumatic event with others, social isolation, and dissociation. (41)

Translated into plain English, this quotation says: “Avoiding stimuli associated with a trauma as a result of fear leads to the perpetuation of both the avoidant response and the fear.” Or, even simpler: “Avoiding triggers perpetuates trauma and the ugly feelings associated with it.”

So much for the declarations of Loverin and others that “trigger warnings” “avert trauma.” Not only do they not “avert trauma,” they may actually serve to perpetuate the trauma and associated feelings of panic, in addition to stalling the healing process, which can only be initiated and sustained by confronting the trauma.

Much like well-meaning but overbearing parents who think they are doing right by their children when they refuse to let them play outside or intrusively moderate their children’s fights, “trigger warnings” do more harm than good to the very population they aim to “protect.”

And while Loverin alleges that “[“Trigger warnings” are not] an excuse to avoid challenging subjects; instead, they offer students with post-traumatic stress disorder control over the situation so that they can interact with difficult material,” it is difficult for me to see how the function of a “trigger warning” is anything but an invitation to do precisely that—avoid the subject matter, leave the classroom, and engage in other maladaptive coping strategies.

Exploiting the trope of the “mad student” so familiar from recent media reports and capably analyzed by scholar Margaret Price in her monograph Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (2011), Loverin then goes on, in her USA Today op-ed, to paint the following grim picture of the “traumatized student”:

If students are suddenly confronted by material that makes them ill, black out or react violently, they are effectively prevented from learning. If their reaction happens in the classroom, they’ve halted the learning environment. No professor is going to teach over the rape victim who stumbles out in hysterics or the veteran who drops under a chair shouting.

Furthermore, seeing these reactions will leave other students shaken and hesitant to engage. With a trigger warning, a student can prepare to deal with the content. (bold emphasis mine)

Here, again, it is possible to see how proponents of the “trigger warning” are advocating for strategies of trauma avoidance—both on the part of students with PTSD, on the part of faculty and staff, and on the part of students without PTSD who share classroom space with those with PTSD. “Trigger warnings,” according to Loverin, will cut down on classroom outbursts and avoid “disturbing” everyone involved. It is not at all difficult to see the specters of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold or Kip Kinkel or Seung-Hui Cho lurking between the lines of Loverin’s text.

It is as though Loverin is suggesting that one kind of “trigger warning” will help prevent another, more gruesome “trigger warning”—that of the school shooting. While this type of neat and tidy logic may be very appealing to administrators, it is largely fallacious since the reasons for school shootings have very little to do with PTSD and “trigger warnings” and a lot to do with, basically, the availability of guns and our enshrinement of a culture of violence in the United States.

A claim I’ve heard repeated in various blog posts and op-eds by those in favor of the “trigger warning” stands out: namely, that post-traumatic or distressed reactions by students “hinder” or “prevent” learning. (Loverin takes it a step further, citing “halted learning environments” for both the student experiencing PTSD and others present in the classroom. Interestingly, her description flirts with the idea that witnessing another’s trauma is in and of itself a form of trauma—an argument parallel to the one which asserts that, for any victim of a past trauma, witnessing evidence of similar trauma in the present is always already traumatic.) When I read the passage above, though, I see something quite different: I see an opportunity to engage with the classroom (students and events) in real-time and to use that engagement to promote learning. I believe, in short, that pain can be a site of learning both for those who experience it and those who bear witness to it.

I am not in favor, obviously, of inflicting pain for the sake of inflicting it—that would be sadism. What I am suggesting is that it’s OK for classrooms to be messy, human places where messy, human reactions occur, and that I think it’s better for us to engage with them as they transpire than attempt to curtail them before they can take place. I do not buy the assertion that incidents such as those Loverin describes “prevent learning.”

One aspect of Loverin’s piece which I find compelling is her focus on the concept of “control.” She reiterates a couple of times that trauma victims need to feel “control”—indeed, mastery of trauma entails regaining this feeling. Where we disagree is about how that mastery should unfold and over what—or whom—that control should be exerted. My position is that mastery of trauma is best achieved by confronting trauma rather than seeking to avoid it and that learning to modulate one’s own emotions in a diverse array of settings and when faced with a wide range of subject matter is a good way to regain a sense of “control.” Seeking to exert control over course content or classroom discussions (or other people) for the sake of (unhealthily) avoiding one’s trauma is not.

Which brings me to another observation: whenever I have seen demands for “trigger warnings” deployed, they seem to be deployed by whomever wishes to regulate either a conversational topic or the manner in which it is being articulated. That is, I see “trigger warnings” being used to strategically to silence some voices. I’m reminded again of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “student-customer” model, since the question of who is attempting to exert control over the discourse has a lot to do with social class (and probably race as well).

I once read somewhere: “Being rich means being able to choose what one does and does not experience in life.” We could modify this statement to read: “The richer you are, the more control you have over what you do and do not experience in life.” It is reasonable to assume that places like Oberlin CollegeUC Santa Barbara, and Rutgers—three institutions of higher learning embroiled in debates about “trigger warnings”—are by and large populated by students from comfortably upper-middle-class families (or above). [1]

These students—more so than poor students—see themselves as “consumers,” which makes sense since the more disposable income you and your family have, the more you engage in patterns of consumption and, more importantly, the more you experience consumer choice. To give a quick, concrete example of this phenomenon at work: if you’re poor and going food shopping you typically go to the cheapest grocery store around and look for the least expensive food item available (like Ramen). Your range of “choice” becomes limited to whatever is cheapest or—on a good day—to several equally as cheap items. Conversely, if you’re upper-middle-class or wealthy, you have the ability to exercise choice over which supermarket you will shop at and then, once there, over which products you will purchase and, within any given food category, which brands you will select. Your horizon of choice is noticeably greater than that of someone with a fraction of your income, so you experience “choice” at every level of your shopping process. You grow accustomed to “choice.”

With “trigger warnings,” students are applying “consumer choice” models to education. This is not necessarily problematic in and of itself and, as some have pointed out, may even be beneficial in empowering students to participate actively in shaping their own learning. The quandary arises when one begins to consider who exactly is exerting their “right” to “consumer choice” through the arm of “trigger warnings.”

In the real lives of people not privileged enough to selectively choose what they will and will not be exposed to, “trigger warnings” do not exist. And it seems to me that we are currently more interested in protecting some students from mention of trauma than we are in protecting others from actual trauma. In a climate where, just yesterday, Johns Hopkins University suspended an entire fraternity for, among other crimes, gang rape, we appear more invested in “protecting” students with PTSD from reminders of past trauma than we do in protecting all students from lived experiences of trauma. In the process, we may also be discouraging students who do experience trauma on campus or while enrolled in our institutions from speaking or writing about their experiences, for fear of “triggering” their peers.

We are creating an environment where speaking, naming, or showing trauma is becoming more taboo than actually traumatizing another human being through an act of violence—and this is a problem, particularly for students from less-privileged socio-economic backgrounds who may leave our classrooms and encounter repeated, ongoing violence at home and in their communities. These students often cannot “choose to avoid” or even “prepare themselves beforehand” for repeated encounters with trauma, for it is happening all around them—to them—on a daily basis. We are coming dangerously close to fostering a culture of silence around trauma that threatens to perhaps “protect”—temporarily, for avoidance is not an effective long-term strategy for dealing with trauma—more privileged students while both failing to protect and silencing less privileged ones. Only if you are privileged enough to experience an end to your lived trauma do you have the time—the luxury, the choice—of insisting that literary and cultural objects reminiscent of your original trauma bear “warning labels.” Only if your lived trauma is not relentless does it even occur to you that you might be able to avoid confronting it (despite the fact that all evidence shows that failure to confront trauma is detrimental to recovery).

Unless you are fortunate enough to exert the kind of control over the rest of your life that you would propose to exert over potentially “triggering” material, avoiding that material in the (more or less) safe space of a classroom will in no way prepare you for what you will encounter after you graduate. On the contrary, you will likely be forced to deal with unanticipated “triggers” on a regular basis—at your job, in your neighborhood, when you travel. The question of “trigger warnings” then evolves into one about whether you’d rather learn how to modulate a panic attack in class or in a boardroom, at the university or the next time you’re deployed for military duty. My take on this is that the classroom and university—where stakes are still relatively low and support is available—would be preferable training grounds for learning how to successfully process trauma.



I’d like to contemplate the possibility that demands for “trigger warnings” may not be what they seem, at face value, to be. Up to this point, I’ve dissected Bailey Loverin’s op-ed about these “warnings” and formulated some of my personal objections and challenges to the concept of “trigger warnings” as they intersect with issues of disability and class.

From a Disability Studies perspective, it is reasonable to ask not only whether “trigger warnings” do more harm than good (as I did above, in Part I), but also what it is that we do when we maintain, like David Perry does in “Should Shakespeare come with a warning label?,” that:

The classroom is not a therapist’s clinic […] Moreover, it’s a decision for a patient and a therapist or doctor to decide and advise a university, rather than for faculty or administrators to decide for themselves.

I’m not really sure that we can have it both ways. If “the classroom is not a therapist’s clinic” and the decision about when, how, and where a student should or should not be exposed to subject matter is “for […] a therapist and doctor to decide and advise a university,” then why are we even talking about implementing blanket policies on “trigger warnings” in university environments? (Perry himself is not arguing in favor of these blanket policies, but instead indicating that our existing systems of ADA accommodations policies can and should adequately address the needs of students with PTSD, and I am generally inclined to agree with him.)

I quote Perry at this juncture because I have read similar sentiments in tweets and Facebook posts by academics over the past several months—minus Perry’s astute qualification that our existing disability policies can and should sufficiently address the concerns of students like Loverin. For those academics who clamor “we are not therapists” but also support blanket “trigger warning” policies: your position appears internally contradictory.

Also from a Disability Studies perspective, it is worth pondering the advantages and/or drawbacks of such blanket policies. Does a failure to implement them effectively “medicalize” PTSD in a way that would be considered undesirable within the larger framework of Disability Studies? In other words, when we reject blanket policies on “trigger warnings” and instead direct students towards individualized solutions (via therapists and doctors, medication, and ADA accommodations), are we in essence “medicalizing” PTSD–and by extension disability in general? What might this question reveal to us about relationships between (mental) illness and disability as perceived by DS scholars? By the public?

What fascinates me about the idea of over-arching “trigger warning” policies is that, whereas ADA accommodations are tailored towards individual students—with all students enrolled in a given school presumed non-disabled until and unless they declare themselves disabled by requesting accommodations [2]—“trigger warning” policies operate via the inverse principle. They preemptively assume all students are in fact traumatized (or vulnerable to the effects of PTSD). Thus, from a purely theoretical point of view, blanket “trigger warning” policies are quite progressive since they assume disabilitynot able-bodied/mindedness—as the default state. In so doing, the policies fall more in line with “social model” approaches to disability; they identify the problem as residing in society instead of in the bodies/minds of disabled individuals, with these blanket policies acting as the ideological equivalent of an adaptive or assistive technology. If all this is true, then what we’re witnessing is a potentially revolutionary paradigm shift in the way we view mental/psychological disability.

The two types of trauma victims that blanket “trigger warning” policies are cited as “protecting” include soldiers and rape victims. I question why we would be engaged in a discussion now, as a society, about whether or not we wish to move forward with the paradigm shift I’ve just described. Temporarily putting aside my arguments about the “student-consumer,” etc. — why now? I wonder if the desire for “trigger warnings” communicates something about us on a macro level, as a culture. For if, as I have insisted, we as a culture tend to avoid facing trauma—we suppress it, silence it—and if “trigger warnings” are about exerting control (however maladaptive the strategy may be), then perhaps we as a culture are struggling to modulate and control our own large-scale trauma: our nation’s legacy of violence.

When I re-read Ms. Loverlin’s stereotypes of the “hysterical” rape victim and the “shouting” soldier along with that of the student-witnesses who become “shaken and hesitant to engage,” my mind pans reflexively through a Rolodex of events: 9/11; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the financial crisis of 2008; years of gun violence in schools; the Marathon bombings; mass incarceration of U.S. citizens; natural disasters; rape on college campuses.

I remember that students of Ms. Loverin’s age have, for all intents and purposes, never known a world without war, natural disaster, gun violence, terrorism. And I wonder if the ongoing debate surrounding “trigger warnings” might actually be about something far greater, albeit unspoken—an expression of our students’ desire to try and mitigate collective cultural traumas. An attempt, if you will, to exert some control.

[***FIRST DRAFT: TUESDAY, MAY 20th, 2014. 23:45H EDT***]



1 – A complete breakdown of data (including reported family income) for UC – Santa Barbara students is accessible here, in .PDF formatIf anyone can find data on Oberlin, please do contact me; I did some fishing but was unable to find anything like “average family income” for students enrolled. Here (also in .PDF format) is some info. on demographics at Rutgers, with a breakdown by campus within the Rutgers system as well. Apparently (thanks, David!) one indirect measure of student/parent income is the percentage of students at a given institution who receive Pell Grants. Information for any institution about the percentage of its students who receive Pell Grants can be accessed here. In 2012, 31% of Rutgers students received Pell Grants. According to the figures posted in the U.S. News report, this would place Rutgers somewhere in the middle socioeconomically; far more students at Rutgers receive Pell Grants than at Oberlin, yet more students at UC Santa Barbara (whose overall student body is far from impoverished) receive Pell Grants than at Rutgers.

2 – That is, the very framework of “accommodations” presumes a “default” of able-bodiedness.

"The Falling Man," by Richard Drew.

“The Falling Man,” by Richard Drew.


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31 Responses to Triggernometry

  1. “The two types of trauma victims that blanket “trigger warning” policies are cited as “protecting” include soldiers and rape victims.”

    I now wonder if part of the push toward trigger warnings is means of not addressing university rape culture. That is, from what I can tell, universities do their best to avoid addressing campus rape culture. So, instead, they may decide that the way to address it is to support efforts that could potentially silence discussion, especially now that stories about campus rape culture are widespread across social media. Thoughts?

    • ….completely possible. You should write a post on it. 😉

    • Matthew Davis says:

      I think you may be on to something there. It certainly would jibe with the corporatiziation of campus and the attendant desire to do the least amount possible for the least amount of money, while putting the onus for enforcement on faculty when they can.

  2. Pingback: Triggernometry | creativityinthecollegeclassroom

  3. Lirael says:

    Regarding PTSD and avoidance: Exposure therapy and systematic desensitization have some good research supporting them, but they are done by a mental health professional in a controlled environment, not by laypeople in classrooms and other non-therapeutic environments. I don’t think opposition to trigger warnings is comparable to a therapist’s use of a therapeutic technique.

    Since I keep ending up in arguments about this, I’m going to copy and paste the comment that I spent so long writing for another, non-academic, blog. Might as well get more use out of it. Some bits of it might seem like slight non-sequiteurs here because they’re referencing specific bits of that other post and comment thread, but I think the comment as a whole makes my argument pretty clear:

    Maybe I can shed some light on this, [owner of that other blog], as someone who both has PTSD and works a lot with people with PTSD (I volunteer as a rape crisis counselor).

    Triggers aren’t about being “upset”. They aren’t about people being “sensitive”. I have PTSD because I did, and still do, work that exposed me to the risk and sights of severe violence and that most of the people complaining about trigger warnings would not be willing to do themselves (i.e. being a medic at protests). And like I said, I volunteer as a rape crisis counselor. The problem is not that I am “sensitive”, the problem is that certain stimuli, especially if I’m not expecting them, can cause me to re-experience traumatic experiences – intense physical symptoms of fear or horror and rushing adrenaline, even full-blown panic attacks. It’s a medical episode. It can throw off my emotional balance for hours, or days if it’s bad enough, leaving me irritable and upset. It has nothing to do with wanting to be shielded from the bad things in the world – I still do the work that I was doing when I got traumatized in the first place, but when I go into it I know what might be coming and that makes such a huge difference. I have a chance to prepare myself. I have a chance to check myself, make sure this is something I can really deal with at that time.

    With all the articles about trigger warnings lately, I’m getting really tired of hearing how weak and delicate I supposedly am to have triggers (or how I must be some ultra-privileged person who has triggers because I’ve been so oversheltered and didn’t see enough pictures of the Holocaust or whatever growing up).

    Triggers are idiosyncratic, which I think is something that some people in the trigger warning movement, as you call it, miss. For example, I have a friend who is triggered by all the movies of a particular famous director, because one of his movies was playing in the background when she was assaulted. The Geek Feminism Wiki has a link to the account of someone who is triggered by calculus because she was studying calculus during the months that she was being repeatedly sexually abused. I’ve talked to people who are triggered by taking showers because they were raped in the rain. For a while I had a popular song as a mild trigger. So yeah, you’re never going to be able to account for all people’s triggers. People have weird triggers. Anyone who has triggers, unless they are very new to the experience, is going to have done a fair amount of work learning what they are and how to manage them.

    However, actual depictions of the thing that traumatized them in the first place are very common triggers. So you can address a lot of triggers by warning people about the obvious things! Is it really so arduous for a prof to briefly mention “Just so you know, this film that we’re watching has a rape scene in it”? [Other commenter from that other blog], below, gives a fine example of how this can work with racist language, that would cover both people who would actually be triggered by it and people who would be sort of upset, while doing zero harm and posing zero threat to academic freedom. It’s just a courtesy.

    Are there people who are co-opting the notion of triggers, using them to mean “Anything that upsets me”? Yep, and those people are annoying. But you get that with everything – people saying that they have OCD because they are neat, that they are autistic because they are mildly socially awkward, that they have the flu because they have a cold.

    Does real life have trigger warnings? Well, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Usually not worded as such, of course, but I don’t routinely click on links to stories about police brutality that don’t have “police brutality” or a similar indicative phrase somewhere in the title or URL. Stories about rape usually have headlines or blurbs that make it clear what they’re about. Movies have a blurb on the back of the box that can give you some idea of what you’re getting into, or you can read reviews. Friends who have some idea of your past experiences will say “Hey, there’s a scene in this movie that you might have trouble with.”

    • Josh Eyler says:

      Lirael, this expresses my views about the use of trigger warnings in the classroom far more eloquently than I ever could. Valeria, you know by now that you and I disagree pretty firmly on this subject, Lirael’s comment above gets right to the heart of why.

    • Hi,

      While I do appreciate your engagement with my post, the fact that you copy-pasted a “stock response” you originally wrote for another blog post—one which, I might add, fails to address some of the points I have made in my post—is disappointing. What I mean is that your comment reads like that of someone who did not read what I actually wrote and is, indeed, not responding to me but rather to someone else (who wrote something else).


      • Lirael says:

        In that case, I will address some points that I either didn’t cover or covered in a perfunctory way.

        The disability studies perspective is very interesting and I appreciate it. I had not previously seen that take on this topic.

        In the not-copied-over part of my previous comment, I brought up your points about how avoidance is a PTSD symptom. I stand by my argument there. Exposure therapy and systematic desensitization can be really useful tools. Surgery is also a really useful tool for a variety of problems, but an untrained layperson doing it in a classroom without the consent of the person they’re operating on would be a bad idea. I have seen several opponents of trigger warnings point out that the classroom is not a therapeutic environment. I agree with them about that. I have a therapist for therapy. So why is the classroom a reasonable place to deploy a therapeutic technique? I would add to that that a desire for trigger warnings is not necessarily about avoiding potentially triggering material, but steeling oneself for engaging with it.

        In the “real world”, sometimes I get some sort of warning, whether that’s an intentional trigger warning, a headline that alerts me to what I’m going to be reading about, or something else, before being exposed to triggering material, and sometimes I do not. I’m a grad student who worked full-time for five years before going for a PhD, and my encounters with both triggering material and trigger warnings are largely outside academia (trigger warnings, after all, were not invented in academia or by current college students – as far as I know, they came out of online feminist communities several years ago). The fact that I can’t always know ahead of time that triggers are going to happen, doesn’t lessen my appreciation for the times when I CAN know ahead.

        I don’t see why trigger warnings and creating campus environments where students aren’t traumatized in the first place should be in opposition to each other. It’s not as though the pushes for trigger warnings are coming from university admins trying to cover their own butts because they’re failing to prevent rapes in the first place. Students have often been the ones out front in the fight against rape culture at universities as well as being the ones bringing up trigger warnings. Similarly, it’s possible to both care about trigger warnings and work to reduce the violence inflicted upon poor communities and communities of color.

        I am reminded of arguments made by staff at my own university that trans students wanting to be called by their preferred pronouns came from their being privileged people who wanted to create a sheltered little bubble when in the “real world” people won’t respect preferred pronouns. In both cases, I don’t see why it’s wrong or the triumph of a student-customer model for students who are part of some marginalized group (trans people, people with psychological disabilities) to advocate for themselves in the environment that that they’re currently in.

        You are certainly not responsible for modulating my reactions to content. I am, and trigger warnings are a simple tool that helps me do that. I’m pretty good at grounding and self-soothing techniques. With a heads-up about what’s coming, I can use them preemptively, I can mitigate my own response to material more reliably.

        I am open to the idea, suggested by Perry, that a university disabilities office would be a good place to handle this, to trigger warnings for specific people being an accommodation (Perry’s piece is in general one of the more reasonable that I have seen on the subject, from any side). That gets back to the disability studies perspective that your post brought up and whether the paradigm of accommodations is the right one.

      • Thank you. I appreciate your thoughtful comment which, this time around, directly addresses the material in my post. I’ll likely reply to you in depth later (am on mobile now), but in the meantime wanted to acknowledge your revised comment and extend my thanks for your response. Best, V.

    • Here is an interesting perspective from a psychotherapist:

      • Lirael says:

        I’m curious where you found his post. Looking around his site and otherwise looking him up, he appears to be someone with a side job as an Objectivist talk-radio host who brags about his “Objectivist approach to psychology” on his home page, who lists all his radio appearances but no peer-reviewed scholarly work or dissertation topic on his online resume, and whose doctoral degree is from a university whose clinical program isn’t APA-accredited. I’m not sure how representative that background or philosophical orientation is of psychotherapists.

        I’m a little puzzled at his comment “Isn’t a traumatized person capable of telling him- or herself, ‘I think I’ll stay away from that course, or at least that particular lecture with the rape video. I don’t think I’ll like the way I’ll feel after watching that,'” given that that is exactly what a trigger warning is for, to give people the info that they would need to do that (or simply to steel themselves to engage with the material).

        That said, his point that you can’t know what’s going to trigger everyone with triggers is a valid one, one that various people have made, and one reason why accommodations through the university disability office might be a good way to implement trigger warnings.

      • Honestly, I cannot remember where I found it. I’ve been reading pretty much everything I can get my hands on re: TWs for the past few days, and it’s all blurring together now. 😛

        I think it’s worth noting that The Handbook of PTSD (2010), which I also cited in my original post, overall does not advocate for an avoidance approach.

        I was just looking at another website where people are commenting on my work (and assuming I am not reading their comments, it looks like), and interestingly one of the arguments a commentator there makes is that my observations about how lower-class students are provided no “trigger warnings” is invalid because, basically, (paraphrasing): “Since those kids live in violent communities anyway they should already expect violence, so the fact that they know their communities are violent is in and of itself a ‘trigger warning.'” No, really.

        But the thing is that if proponents of TWs are going to make arguments like that one—and I am not saying you are, just that some proponents of TWs are, because I just read them—then can I not make the equally as valid argument: “Since college is a place where shocking material abounds, students should expect to encounter shocking material in college, and the fact that they know this before enrolling is in and of itself a ‘trigger warning.'”

        I am not saying that’s my argument. I’m saying it’s the rhetorical equivalent of an argument I just saw about how supposedly PTSD and trauma is “different” for poor people who “should be used to it”….while conversely, somehow, wealthier people are not supposed to “be used to it.”

        The person has completely missed my entire point about class, but in a weird sense their (misguided) comment about poor students actually reinforces some of my original statements about socioeconomic status and PTSD as they come to bear on the idea of “trigger warnings.”

        More food for thought….

    • Hi Lirael,

      If you don’t mind, I am only going to reply to your comment that actually addresses what I wrote on my blog—not to the “stock comment” you originally copy-pasted above. (I think I’ve already explained my reasoning for why.)

      I think if you’re going to argue that “an untrained layperson doing [exposure therapy] in a classroom without the consent of the person they are operating on is a bad idea,” then you need to concede that “an untrained layperson” deploying a therapeutic technique like “trigger warnings” is also a bad idea. Both, actually, constitute therapeutic approaches to PTSD—-one approach (exposure) does not cater to avoidance, whereas the other approach (TWs) caters to avoidance. Either way you slice it, proponents of the TW are in essence arguing for clinical therapeutic techniques to be brought into a classroom environment. This is what I mean in my text above when I say “you can’t have it both ways” and “your position is internally contradictory.” If PTSD is a “medical” issue that should only be dealt with by “experts,” then any potentially (medically) “therapeutic” technique (including TWs) has no place in a classroom environment.

      I am unsure as to why proponents of TWs advocate for professors to act as therapists with respect to the deployment of TWs, but then insist that the opposite therapeutic movement (exposure to potential “triggers”) is off-limits. It seems here that perhaps we can agree on a middle ground, which would be treating PTSD as a disability and dealing with it as we would any other form of “reasonable accomodation,” i.e. – through the office for students with disabilities and on a case-by-case, individual basis as opposed to in the form of a blanket policy.

      At any rate, I am not sure quite how I feel about this medicalization of PTSD, especially given that DS scholars and activists would more than likely argue that any “medical model” approach to any disability is necessarily negative, since it stigmatizes people with disabilities as “weak,” “incapable,” “fragile,” etc. The interesting thing for me is that some people with PTSD perceive the pro-TW movement as empowering (and in a certain sense it is pretty radical, as I discuss in Part II of my post), but from a Disability Studies standpoint the rhetoric surrounding the pro-TW movement is fundamentally dis-empowering to disabled people. (N.B. – NO, I don’t have this completely figured out yet. It’s a complex issue. So this paragraph probably needs work—-I need to think about these ideas more.)

      While you make a good point about it being possible to both address requests for “trigger warnings” and deal with firsthand violence that students experience, what concerns me (as I explained in my post), is that I really do not see a significant push to deal with firsthand violence—certainly nothing compared to the media firestorm over the past couple of months surrounding “trigger warnings.” The disproportionate nature of our social responses to these two things (reminders of trauma and firsthand/lived trauma) is something that continues to perturb me.

      I don’t see us (you and I) coming to any sort of over-arching agreement on how we feel about “trigger warnings,” so I’ve tried, in my response today, to address some of your more salient points to which I felt like I could reasonably respond without just reiterating my arguments *against* “trigger warnings.”

      If there is anything in particular you feel I’ve missed, please let me know. I’m happy to continue the conversation. Also, as a side note, if you haven’t yet seen this: — It’s a psychotherapist with a PhD weighing in on the “trigger warning” debate and (surprise!) he agrees with me.


    • Of interest: yet *another* psychiatrist weighs in …. and also agrees with me:

  4. What really spoke to me about this article is how the concept of trigger warnings serve as an ultimately limiting factor on the learning process. If, as I believe, our experiences and thus our learning process are mediated through both the physical tools and ideas we confront the world with, we’re in essence turning tramatic experience into the equivalent of an opaque, inscrutable machine that sanitizes said experience and outputs the “safe” version thereof. If we don’t understand how that machine works, what happens when it breaks? What’s our toolkit to deal with trauma then?

  5. mable says:

    Rutgers is a state university: its official name is Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. I doubt most of the students are upper middle class

    • It’s a prestigious state university, much like UMass Amherst or UC – Santa Barbara. If you happen to locate figures on parental income for Rutgers students, please do share them. That would be very productive for both of us.

      • mable says:

        Is it? Okay – I honestly wasn’t aware of that. It seemed that most state families, if they had the money, went somewhere else. Thanks for responding & letting me (and your readers) know!

    • OK—-you inspired me to completely re-vamp my first footnote and provide more data. Hope it now provides a more accurate snapshot. Thanks for keeping me on my toes. 🙂

    • You’re correct that demographically it’s more socio-economically diverse (by far) than Oberlin, but it tails behind other state schools like UC Santa Barbara with respect to Pell Grants awarded, suggesting it’s kind of a middle-of-the-road university. Thanks again for fact-checking me; footnote #1 is much stronger now. 🙂

  6. yota says:

    I think where the first half of your argument falls apart is the assumption that a trigger warning will likely result in avoidance by either the person who is potentially triggered or in the extreme case by the entire classroom. I would disagree.

    Advance knowledge of a potential trigger gives someone with PTSD a choice. Confront or avoid. I do not believe that avoid is the automatic default, or confront for that matter, because each person’s journey, especially with regards to PTSD, is so individual. Giving someone a choice is not the same thing as adhering to one form or another of therapy. You’re right, a classroom is not therapy, but choosing to go without trigger warnings, by your own argument, would be tantamount to selecting confrontation therapy. Even if your research indicates it is more effective, shouldn’t a licensed therapist make that call with their patient? You’ve taken their choice of action away.

    As far as the rest of the class, a trigger warning does not preclude discussion. A teacher should not have to stop teaching or discussing a topic simply because one student might be traumatized. There is no reason that I can see in your argument that satisfactorily tells me why discussion would stop due to a disclaimer before it occurs. If that were true half the discussions I read online wouldn’t occur.

    Yes, students should have reasonable expectations when taking a class about the content of those classes. But I think professors should also be reasonably expected to include accurate descriptions of what a class might entail. Is my lit class going to include Shakespeare? As a student, I should know it’s likely. Are we going to watch some modern day retelling of Hamlet where I have to watch people being murdered with sub machine guns? This isn’t necessarily as obvious. Trigger warnings aren’t hand holding, they are facilitating informed decisions.

    • I think—color me cynical—that people’s natural impulse is to avoid that which causes pain, discomfort, fear, etc. and that people will generally choose avoidance for as long as possible over confrontation. I think part of where our ideas keep colliding lies in whether we view PTSD and associated feelings of panic, anxiety, etc. as something that falls within the realm of education, therapy, or both. Part of me does want to say that if you’re asking for a blanket “trigger warning” policy—not a disability accommodation on an individual basis, but a blanket policy—then you are implicitly conceding that we’ve decided to view PTSD and associated feelings/reactions as belonging to the realm of pedagogy rather than therapy, because you are asking that they be addressed pedagogically rather than therapeutically. If that’s truly the situation, then I would argue that it would be each professor’s role to decide, from a pedagogical standpoint, how to proceed with respect to TWs. (Again: these are all hypotheticals and I want to make that very clear since people on other forums are misunderstanding some of my positons. Hypotheticals here. I am just trying to follow particular paths of logic to see where they lead.)

      The interesting thing is that in this comment you’ve (re)turned to the neoliberal capitalist rhetoric of “choice” in order to make your argument in favor of blanket TW policies. By doing so—by emphasizing choice and selection—you seem to be aligning TWs with the “student-consumer” model discussed by Tressie McMillan Cottom (to which I linked above), and that’s where I get stuck because this model seems fundamentally incompatible to me with the idea that PTSD is a disability and TWs are a disability-related issue. If you are going to argue that TWs allow for “selection” and “choice” (mainly of content, or at least of how/when/where/for how long/under what circumstances) one is exposed to certain types of content, then you seem again to be ideologically aligning the TW with other types of consumer “warning labels” like those on music, movies, food, etc. This is all fine and good in and of itself—provided you want to concede that the request for TWs is in fact more about “consumer choice” than averting trauma. Your final comment about “facilitating informed decisions” appears consistent with this framing of TWs as being about “consumer choice” as well.

      I don’t believe that I argued—unlike other authors in other op-eds—that TWs “preclude discussion” or even that this is a free speech issue. I did attempt to tease out some potentially thorny issues regarding TWs and socio-economic class, and mentioned as an aside that implementing blanket TW policies may end up having an unintended “chilling effect” on speech surrounding trauma in particular (not speech about Shakespeare or speech about any other specific text or lecture topic, but speech about trauma itself), and that this, if it occurred, would be most prejudicial to the students least likely to have resources to deal with and protection from undergoing further lived trauma.

      Again, what I keep suggesting (as David Perry also did in his CNN article) is that PTSD should be dealt with like all other disabilities—namely, with individual students making the “choice” to register with the Disabilities Office on campus and “selecting” accommodations pertaining to their specific post-traumatic issues and specific triggers, which they would have documented (normally by a therapist or other medical professional) on paper and then discuss with individual professors at the beginning of the semester.

      I’m not sure why PTSD should be treated differently from any other disability on campus. So, again, I am not against accommodating students with disabilities (including PTSD). I am against blanket “trigger warning” policies (in practice — in theory they fascinate me….but in theory only), since these types of blanket policies strike me as more aligned with neoliberal capitalist rhetorics of “consumer choice” than with those of disability and accommodation.

      I think the biggest question here (and no, I definitely have not figured this out yet) is: why are we treating PTSD as different from every other disability, and why are we proposing to accommodate it differently than we currently accommodate every other disability?

      If we can figure that out, I think we’ll really be onto something….

      By the way: I am very much enjoying talking to you. You’re giving me quite a bit to think about and I dig it. So thanks. 🙂

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  11. fck says:

    i appreciate this article a great deal. On the second section i would add that it is contradictory to assume a disability of ALL subjects. Disability has specific distinguishing features shared by some but not by all. From each according to their ability to each according to their need. Unfortunately we do not have a level playing field and absolute equality (in this case the assumption of dis/ability) is a deeply problematic conception – neither is it revolutionary.

  12. Pingback: 3620 Podcast | Annenberg School for Communication

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