Reframing trigger warning discussion necessary for compromise

Go f--- off a bridge, you coddling little s---,” is not a message that most people particularly want in their inbox. Yet this was the start of a rather lengthy rant I received on Reddit (of all places) about my trigger warning article, “Trigger warnings needed in classroom.” After hosting a mock AMA on Reddit, several people began saying that I was “ruining academia,” “infecting academia with social justice warriors,” and other hyperbolic nonsense.

I would be satisfied enough if the worst of my experience was harassment. But, ironically enough, what truly stung for me was the pushback I received from the left as well. Feminist writers at Jezebel and The Guardian complained that trigger warnings were good at heart, yet “dumb down education.” Another writer at The Guardian argued that labeling for trigger warnings was a form of othering for marginalized identities: an argument that completely erases the role that marginalized identities play in trigger warning activism. Users and moderators of the Reddit social justice community, ShitRedditSays, even mocked my national TW coverage, often questioning my activist credentials after dissenting from the community on other issues. In short, I was shocked how many on the left were quick to denounce my ideas.

Perhaps national writers are not taking trigger warnings seriously enough because its meaning was lost in translation. Many individuals are familiar with trigger warnings from websites such as Tumblr — and yet, these trigger warnings often go above and beyond my intention, and quickly become overbearing for the user. While these are perfectly fine for personal use in the blogosphere, this is not what I asked professors to consider in academia.

The “trigger” part of the phrase “trigger warning” relates back to “trauma triggers.” According to 1in6, a nonprofit support organization for men who have experienced sexual assault, “a trigger is something that reminds you of something bad or hurtful from your past. It ‘triggers’ an association or memory in your brain.” Many of these triggers lead to debilitating responses that largely prevent individuals from functioning to their fullest capacity in the classroom. 1in6 notes how a triggered individual’s body “may suddenly freak out with a racing heart and feeling of panic,” or may leave survivors “depressed and retreating from any contact with friends, or drinking a lot more every night,” among other troublesome coping mechanisms. Being triggered is not just “feeling bad,” but rather a deep and invasive reminder of past traumatic experiences.

Therefore, the point of trigger warnings for classroom material is not simply to cover “uncomfortable” topics. Trigger warnings rely on creating landmarks in the classroom for narratives that might deal with content that reminds abuse survivors of experiences with abuse, or sexual assault survivors of sexual assault or self-harm survivors of the psychological and physical anguish of harming themselves, which could possibly lead to relapse. At any time, these experiences might be discussed in vivid, graphic detail in a classroom text, and it’s the responsibility of University faculty to create transparent and approachable classroom environments where students can understand if classroom content might trigger the debilitating panic attacks and depression that trauma triggers can cause.

I can assure you, none of us want to take Mrs. Dalloway out of the classroom. I would be the first person to physically protest its removal, as censorship destroys the very foundation of freedom of speech on which academia prides itself. We do not want censorship. We simply want to know what traumatic themes our course literature will be discussing. That’s a simple demand virtually every professor should be able to accommodate for in a safe and anonymous way, where survivors should not be forced to out themselves to academic faculty and staff.

Granted, trigger warnings will never warn for every trauma trigger. Trauma triggers are often extremely personalized. However, many trauma survivors share triggers, and certain triggers, such as graphic depictions of wartime violence, can be found largely among the Rutgers student body. Indeed, trigger warnings themselves provide a dual role: They warn for traumatic experiences that are epidemic in our society and culture, and they help academics become more sensitive to our student’s lived experiences.

Trigger warnings do not warn for content — they warn for trauma triggers. Mainstream media needs to reframe the trigger warning discussion around people with psychological trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Otherwise, there is no hope for a good faith discussion on trigger warnings if we cannot start with the role that mental illness plays inside of our classrooms.

Philip Wythe is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in English with a minor in political science. Their column, “Nothing, if Not Critical,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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