Trigger warnings are not the end of academic freedom, I promise

(Content warning: brief mention of domestic violence and sexual assault.)

My junior year of college, my Environmental Communication class spent an afternoon discussing the pros and cons of a shock value approach to advertising for environmental causes. Our professor put together a slideshow including a number of ads as examples. Many of them were from the animal-rights group PETA, which often poses women as animals (for instance, in cages) to make points about animal abuse.

I don’t remember the exact nature of every image we looked at, but one of them involved a woman who had been severely beaten–a close-up of her face with bruising, blood and the whole nine yards. It was realistic, graphic, and it was huge, sitting larger-than-life on the whiteboard while we kept the discussion going.

That image came less than a week after I’d gotten a call from someone I care about very much. I can’t and won’t repeat the specifics of what she told me through sobs, but it boiled down to this: she was in the hospital because her husband had left her covered in bruises the night before.

I don’t consider myself a fragile person, though goodness knows I have my days, just like everyone else. But seeing that face larger-than-life on the board, while we talked about it in the most unemotional terms possible was, to put it mildly, agonizing. My chest tightened. I flashed back to our conversation, and to conversations like it I’ve had with so many people I care about. I kept seeing the faces of people I loved projected onto this bruised woman’s face. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I thought about getting up, saying something, but I didn’t know what I would say, so I sat there.

Eventually, I got my reaction under control with some deep breaths and asked the professor, after class, if he wouldn’t mind giving us a heads-up if we was going to show images like that in the future. He said sure and seemed concerned, sensing that something was wrong, but didn’t ask me any questions. The issue never came up in that class again.

I’m telling this story because lately, a lot of people have been writing about trigger warnings. If you’re unfamiliar, a trigger warning is a note (in written or verbal form) that some piece of content might contain something which could trigger a panic or post-traumatic stress disorder type reaction in someone else. They’re often seen on graphic descriptions or images of violence, abuse or sexual assault and are commonly found in some spaces online. They’ve also started migrating to the classroom, with students at some colleges requesting content warnings in syllabuses (for example, for books with graphic rape scenes in them). This last bit is something Jenny Jarvie at the New Republic (and many other writers over the past few weeks) have taken issue with:

What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off. The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.

I get that for people who don’t hang out on the social justice-oriented parts of Tumblr, the pervasiveness of trigger warnings might seem unnecessary, amusing, or even threatening. The syntax of written warnings– “tw: rape” or “tw: abuse” stuck at the beginning of an article–seems to lend itself to mockery. And trigger warnings, as they’ve evolved, aren’t perfect. Some people dilute the original intentions of trigger warnings by using them mockingly or to denote ideas that the author finds personally offensive (eg. tw: Republicans). For people with highly specific  phobias or triggers to everyday objects, it’s probably not possible to configure the world in a way that ensures they never come face to face with something that’s going to set them off. There are legitimate concerns related to censorship and academic freedom when the issue at hand is whether or not students should be able to opt out of triggering material. These are all issues and concerns worth discussing.

I take issue, though, with the critics who think triggers are about being “offended,” or that they signify some sort of unwillingness to confront tough issues head on. The day we looked at those images in my Environmental Comm class was in the middle of one of my hardest semesters of college. I’d been doing interviews with sexual assault victims and eating disorder survivors for the school paper–work that would later end with me being treated for PTSD because I kept flashing back to memories of other people’s worst nightmares. I had several close family members going through their own experiences of sexual assault and domestic violence. I had spent an entire semester confronting some of the worst kinds of trauma I know of head-on, carefully rationing my brain’s ability to absorb more violent images and awful stories. And on days like that, one more thing I wasn’t counting on could be enough to cause a panic attack or flashback.

There are those would say that that’s on me, and it is. It’s on me to walk out of the room, to close my eyes, look away, to get a note from the counselor excusing me from class for the day, or whatever. But I can’t do that if no one tells me what to expect. To suggest that people with triggers need to get over them is essentially to suggest that I can or should get over a slew of mental illnesses instantaneously over the course of a single class period. We understand bodies don’t work that way, which is why we have allergy warnings in dining halls: people can’t just make themselves un-allergic to nuts. Brains don’t work that way either.

Some anti-trigger warning people have said that you can’t deal with your triggers by avoiding them. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case, learning how to deal with trauma without dissociating or having a panic attack was an important part of healing. But that was a long process, and one that was best done with the help of trained therapists, not in the middle of a discussion in class. Even if our end goal is to help people deal with their triggers, warnings can help smooth that process over, let people deal with mental illness at their own pace and give people time to prepare themselves. If my professor had said, “Hey, just so you know, there are a few graphic images in this slide show,” I would have been able to prepare myself mentally, to take some deep breaths before we started, and know that I was in an environment where the professor would likely sympathize if I needed to step out for a minute.  A similar warning on a book (“FYI, there’s a graphic rape scene in this week’s reading”) allows people like me to make an informed choice about when to do that reading–maybe not right after interviewing another survivor, maybe not right after the sobbing phone call from a cousin or a friend who’s just been sexually assaulted.

The phrase “trigger warning” might be a newish one, culturally, but the concept really isn’t. We rate movies and give reasons for those ratings, presumably so someone considering watching “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” can make an informed decision about whether they want to see a film containing “brutal violent content including rape and torture.” Most media outlets that published Boston Marathon bombing photos put a warning above or before them to tell readers that they were particularly graphic and violent. Our culture has evolved a lot of ways to tell people, “Hey, this is some pretty heavy shit you’re about to look at, so if you want to do something else now, here’s your chance.”  It’s simply a way to give people tools to avoid topics that might be (a little, a lot) more than they’re able to handle on a given day, for reasons that are far more outside people’s control than simply “being offended.” I would hope that’s something everyone can get behind.

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