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 College, UC 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). 
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 —“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 disability—not 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 format. If 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.