Trigger Warning: Trigger warnings. Caution- may be triggering.

I was chatting today with Vex0rian about Trigger Warnings, specifically trigger warnings in the context of higher education. Vex0rian feels very strongly regarding this issue- so much so that I don't expect to influence their thoughts a whit with this post. But it's a fun chance for me to clarify my own thoughts on the topic, and heck. Might as well share.

When presented with studies and mental health experts claiming that trigger warnings don't effectively treat PTSD- and in fact can exacerbate it- Vex's reply is that trigger warnings are not intended as treatment. And this is a valid point to make.

A wheelchair ramp isn't intended to treat a broken leg. It's not a medical procedure- it's a courtesy we extend to someone for their comparative inability, even if they are in the minority. Just because most people can do without wheelchairs and ramps doesn't mean everybody can, or should.

So Vex0rian makes a good case for the use of trigger warnings. What does it cost to be considerate towards others, after all? We should care about those who have suffered abuse and trauma, and make reasonable accommodations for them. We should treat others like human beings and respect their emotions.

That's why I replied to Vex that trigger warnings are a fine idea in theory.

Dreamkeepers @vex0rian: Sounds fine in theory. But if a student finds a topic triggering, will they be oppressed by being forced to leave a lecture? 1/2

Dreamkeepers @vex0rian: Or will the 'triggering' content be slowly omitted from study? The road to hell is paved with something or other... 2/2

I believe Vex missed this exchange amidst the continuous stream of messages they were sending me, because this point- of theory versus practice- was never addressed. And it led me to a few other thoughts...

1) Standards & Qualifications.

If a student finds content triggering, let's say the rest of the class can still learn about it, while the student temporarily leaves the classroom. They have successfully avoided the triggering subject matter. No harm there. Right?

However, why is that subject matter being taught in the course to begin with? Let's say a law student finds sexual assault and rape to be triggering, and they excuse themselves from lectures covering the legal precedents involving rape cases.

This law student becomes a prosecutor who then proceeds to lose cases against rapists, letting monsters walk free and failing genuine victims because he's incompetent when it comes to the law surrounding rape.

If this sounds like an absurd hypothetical, well I hope so. But you'll need to answer a few quick questions here.

Would you permit a student to study law who found rape triggering?

If they graduated, would you permit them to be hired as a prosecutor?

If they were a prosecutor, would you stop them from handling rape cases?

And if you stopped this person anywhere along the line, who are you to oppress them and judge them based on their personal sensitivities?

Being sensitive towards others is commendable. But it is subordinate to ensuring basic standards of competence- standards that must equally apply to all, even those struggling with personal issues.

If the knowledge required to attain a degree or job is too 'triggering' for a person to tolerate, then perhaps it would be best for that person to consider entering a tolerable field.

Which brings us to the next point.

2) I'm Not Triggered- That Person is 'Triggering'.

The rationale for trigger warnings is to provide consideration for the feelings of those who are sensitive. But this leads rapidly to something else entirely.

What if I said I was triggered by classical Greek literature, or the Great Gatsby?

A person may be triggered by anything- who's going to call them a liar? Me? You? But the moment they're triggered, a fascinating transformation takes place.

The subject matter they were viewing goes from being acceptable and safe to being 'triggering'- by definition, a source of emotional harm to others. A contagion.

And- not surprisingly, dangerous 'triggering' materials are being constrained, limited- dare I say censored?

For just one example, Oberlin college has recently recommended faculty "remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals".

And the silly examples I used above, Greek literature and the Great Gatsby?

I'm not the one who declared those triggering. Other people, amazingly real people, have.

What began as genuine consideration for the feelings of others is being perverted into a means of labeling and marginalizing not just works of literature, but ways of thinking.

Because it turns out, a whole lot of college students have decided that they find film screenings, visiting speakers, and any political disagreement to be...


3) Race to the Bottom

Catering to over-sensitivity has the interesting effect of rewarding it- and lo and behold, suddenly everyone requires this special consideration.

And unlike wheelchairs, where there are objective measures to assess who has a legitimate need, trigger warnings revel in unfalsifiability.

The people who genuinely cannot function when triggered are being crowded out among the ranks of those who use trigger warnings as a bottom-shelf means of imposing personal preferences.

Should we care about people that are unable to cope with difficult feelings? Yes, of course we should.

But should we let them set the pace for everyone else, and universalize their shortcomings?

When 'triggering' content is marginalized from curricula, there's no 'should' about it. It's already happening.


So, on balance, the clinical studies suggesting that the use of trigger warnings enflames and centralizes trauma doesn't cover the range of harm that trigger warnings confer.

In addition to a personal toll on the mental health of those who are truly vulnerable, trigger warnings are inflicting damage to our educational system, and the elevation of hyperbolic offense is doing no great miracles for social discourse.

That said, I'm not entirely against trigger warnings. Because it is important to be sensitive to the emotional needs of others. But sheltering personal sensitivities should be, at most, an interpersonal priority- not a macroscopic social project.

Education comes first, along with things like running water, freedom of thought, and an open social marketplace of ideas.

When we subordinate any or all of those priorities to the whim of the first person who declares themselves 'triggered,' well...

I guess what I'm saying is, trigger warnings are not inherently unacceptable- but there has to be a line where individual subjective sensitivity no longer has the power to compel social institutions to distort in accommodation. And I would like those pushing trigger warnings to explain where they think that line is, and how they intend to hold it.

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