On Trigger Warnings

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Issue 2, Volume 112

By Aya Alryyes 

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Nowadays, it is virtually impossible to consume any form of media without coming across the term “trigger warning,” a statement of warning preceding a work that contains disturbing material with the potential to “trigger” those affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are most commonly used in two places: the Internet and college campuses. Though the term retains the same meaning in both cases, there is an important distinction to be made.

When it comes to trigger warnings on the Internet—often shortened to “tw”—their use was originally limited to posts that mentioned topics like sexual assault, death, and abuse. However, because there is no consensus on what constitutes a “triggering” topic, the definition has expanded significantly. The boundaries are murky: when a person posts a picture of a dessert enjoyed at a fancy restaurant, should “tw: food” be written in the caption for those with severe eating disorders? Should a person discussing the rate of failed marriages in the United States include “tw: divorce” for those whose parents went through a traumatic divorce when they were young?

One could make the argument that the increased use or overuse of the words “trauma” and “trigger” dilutes the impact of the terms and is damaging to those who have been diagnosed and truly struggle with PTSD or similar disorders, causing their struggles to be taken less seriously. It is true that those terms should not be thrown around lightly or taken to mean “something that makes me sad.” Nevertheless, since it costs nothing to use a trigger warning and including one has the potential to spare someone from reliving trauma, it is better to “overuse” or err on the side of caution. People should not be crucified for posting pictures of their pitbulls without first writing “tw: dog” for those who have suffered canine attacks, but if online trigger warnings make navigating the world just a little bit easier for those who have experienced trauma, the real benefits outweigh the hypothetical harms.

When it comes to trigger warnings on college campuses, the question becomes more contentious. In recent years, increasing numbers of professors, often at students’ behests, are including trigger warnings on syllabi or before lectures and class discussions. This trend has resulted in an enormous outcry from conservatives, who point to trigger warnings on college campuses as evidence of the dumbing down of education and the downfall of intellectualism in the United States. Trigger warnings, they say, encourage students to avoid uncomfortable topics, resulting in colleges composed of groups of 20-year-olds engaging only with works that have the intellectual value of “Dick and Jane Take Spot for a Walk.”

Many who take part in the outcry against trigger warnings see colleges as bastions of liberal fragility. The education system, they believe, has been entirely taken over by “snowflakes,” a term which refers to the stereotype of a young leftist who is unable to deal with opposing opinions, flying into a sputtering rage instead.

It is simply false that young people are unwilling to engage in any meaningful thought or discussion. The younger generations are, in fact, willing to confront the uncomfortable—certainly to a greater extent than we get credit for. The gun-control movement, which does not shy away from death and violence, is largely run by youths like David Hogg and Naomi Wadler, as is the push to fight climate change, an existential threat that qualifies as a difficult topic.

Trigger warnings have become an odd scapegoat. A teacher informing students that the assigned reading contains a vivid description of a sexual assault, for example, does not mean that everyone in the class will decide not to do the reading. It could mean, however, that one person who has been through such an assault does not read that chapter unaware and suffer a panic attack. A friend of mine, a professor, with whom I was discussing trigger warnings said that when she plans to show films or read passages that portray graphic violence and the like, she tells her students to feel free to step out of the classroom if they need to. No one ever does, but I know that if I were in her class, I would appreciate her care for my mental health and her implicit acknowledgment that there are people for whom these topics are more than an abstraction. I am sure her students feel the same.

As we hear repeatedly about how sensitive and fragile today’s youth are, it is important to remember that this is just the latest iteration of the series of criticisms every generation receives for supposedly being soft and helpless. A new and healthy awareness, manifesting as trigger warnings both online and on campus, of how discussions of certain topics can affect people in real ways, has no negative bearing on intellectuality.

Conservatives have seized on trigger warnings, calling them the final nail in the coffin of the American educational system. What they fail to realize is that a trigger warning is not the equivalent of a gag order; in some ways, it is the opposite. Trigger warnings have the potential to encourage meaningful discussion and allow students to enter difficult conversations with the promise of respect and compassion.