Why do we hate trigger warnings?

For a while now, I’ve wanted to write about trigger warnings. However, I haven’t been sure where to start. The topic seems to be pretty polarizing, with indignant academics lamenting their perceived loss of academic freedom on one hand, and feminist and social justice groups requesting safety for PTSD sufferers on the other.

warningIn some ways, I feel kind of resistant to the idea of trigger warnings as they’re proposed in many of the pieces I’ve read. However, when it comes down to it, there is nothing that I can pinpoint about the idea of trigger warnings that I would ever oppose.

Obviously, there’s something going on here. So in this post I’m going to take a look at some of the reasons that trigger warnings have garnered such resistance in media reports.

As far as I can tell, one of the main reasons that anti trigger warning hate has gained such traction is that it so perfectly fits the prevailing media narrative of millennials as entitled “special snowflakes” who believe that the world should cater to their every whim and desire.

We’ve already seen dozens of hand-wringing articles expressing distress over millennials’ seeming inability to take responsibility for their own education in college. We’ve rolled our collective eyes at students who indignantly claim that the result of meeting the bare minimum of course requirements, like attending classes and submitting work, should be a happily-given A.

helicopterWe’ve shaken our heads in despair at the students whose parents phone professors to check in on their children, ask that they be excused from certain assignments or demand justification for a low grade.

When you take this existing disdain for the mythical, mollycoddled millennial, combine it with a lack of understanding of the actual purpose of trigger warnings, and throw in a need for click-baiting headlines to drive some outrage, it’s easy to see how trigger warnings have become the topic du jour of the pearl-clutching set.

However, it seems as if much of the skepticism surrounding trigger warnings is rooted in a more insidious skepticism.

You see, the trigger warning is an idea that was born in a corner of the internet made up of mostly young, largely female social justice bloggers.

We already know that the “adult” world is quick to dismiss anything that has to do with teenaged girls. In fact, a large argument against trigger warnings is that in there are no trigger warnings in the “real world” – as if the women who are fighting for a larger acceptance of trigger warnings in education are living in a world that is somehow less “real”.

RealWorldSignBut I’ve found that most of the time, when someone accuses me of “not living in the real world” when it comes to feminist issues, what they really mean is that I’m not living in THEIR world, with the implication that their world – the world that abides by and upholds the status quo – is somehow more legitimate and worthy of respect than mine.

And the world that I’m living in – that the people who are campaigning for the use of trigger warnings are living in – is one that shows trust, respect, and compassion towards women who have experienced sexual assault.

Here, I believe, is the heart of the resistance to trigger warnings.

Because, you see, accepting that trigger warnings are a necessary addition to websites, blogs, and syllabi requires accepting that women experience sexual assault at a high rate, and that these assaults can result in lasting emotional trauma.

trustwomenPrevailing narratives still strongly suggesting that many women who report rape are really just experiencing regret over a sexual encounter, or were behaving in a way that makes their attacker less culpable and themselves, somehow, less victimized.

Providing trigger warnings would require the academy to, quite simply, trust women. It would require them to behave as though the well-being of women who experience sexual assault is a priority. And as we’ve seen through the investigations that have happened over the past year or so, this kind of behavior isn’t exactly what universities are good at.

As schools break for the summer, it will be interesting to see how this topic is handled in preparation for the next academic year.

What do you think? Are trigger warnings in the classroom necessary? Frivolous? A nice idea but unrealistic?

*Throughout this post I have referred to survivors of sexual assault as “women”. While obviously women are not the only people who experience sexual assault, the purpose of this post was to highlight some of the misogyny inherent in the resistance to trigger warnings.

Also, for the purposes of this post I focused on the use of trigger warnings as they apply to material that relates to sexual assault. While that is not the only type of trigger warning that is worth discussing, it is the one that has driven a lot of the media discussion surrounding trigger warnings, and that discussion is what I wanted to examine here.

2 responses to “Why do we hate trigger warnings?

  1. I’ve also been thinking about (and *not* writing about) trigger warnings for some time. Mandating trigger warnings — on college syllabi or anywhere else — strikes me as a very bad idea: counterproductive, unhelpful, potentially stigma-enhancing, etc. Not the TWs themselves, to be clear, but mandating them.

    TWs grew out of a particular feminist blogger ethos (and I think you’re spot-on to locate the trivializing of concerns about triggering in the general dismissal of young [and not-so-young] women as themselves trivial); they make a very particular kind of sense within those communities. Within the classroom, a good teacher has many tools for handling difficult material responsibly, and TWs may or may not make sense within any particular teacher’s approach. One thing I am sure of, though: mandated labels are insufficient to turn insensitive pedagogy (or an insensitive professor) into something fundamentally respectful.

    Anyhoo. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my own thoughts!


    • I totally agree – as a former teacher, I definitely grapple with the idea of trigger warnings – especially mandated ones. That’s actually one of the reasons I took the angle that I did in writing about them – it was easier to organize my thoughts about how we talk about trigger warnings than about the warnings themselves. Like I said, I’m really resistant to the idea, but more because I can’t imagine that it would be handled well. Teachers and professors who are resistant to them might actually end up treating the materially less sensitively out of frustration, and those who understand their need and use might already be treating the material in a way that’s useful for students. I guess my big concern is that while trigger warnings serve a very specific purpose – letting people with PTSD know that they might want to avoid that material – their impact is actually much further-reaching than just that purpose.

      I may write some more on this to try and sort my own opinions out. Thanks for taking the time to talk about it!

      Liked by 1 person

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