What We Talk About When We Talk About Trigger Warnings

I don't find trigger warnings particularly useful, but our conversations about them tell me a lot about what we think about trauma survivors.
Publish date:
April 30, 2014
abuse, trigger warnings, trauma, survivors

Trigger warnings have mostly been the domain of bloggers and Tumblr users, but lately, conversations about their practicality and effectiveness are popping up everywhere. Last month, Jenny Jarvie, writing in The New Republic, reported with alarm that students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, passed a resolution calling for the mandatory use of trigger warnings on class syllabi.

Just a couple of days later, Jill Filipovic, describing a trigger warning policy governing faculty syllabi at Oberlin College, argued that "we've gone too far." There seems to be a consensus that trigger warnings threaten free speech and coddle people who are trying to protect themselves "from the real world." But I think this conversation reveals far harder, and very different, truths about how we treat survivors, particularly those who have survived trauma we consider feminized, like sexual abuse and assault.

I’ll be honest: like many trauma survivors, I don't find trigger warnings particularly helpful. Everyone's triggers are different, and anything can be a trigger, even (maybe especially) the most mundane stuff--a color, a smell, a song on the radio. I'm not sure I think that labeling college syllabi is an effective or useful idea, either. I’ve been in college classrooms as a student and as a teacher for over a decade, and I’ve never seen anyone insist that they be protected from troubling content. I’ve certainly never asked for one.

But I'm always surprised when the idea of a trigger warning comes up for public debate, because the resulting conversations are almost nothing like that. Instead, they reveal the sheer, knee-jerk contempt with which this culture seems to view trauma survivors.

“Now, we have a bunch of sniveling little Victorian misses with vapours,” read one Facebook comment I saw.

“I am extremely weary of the victimization style of feminism that has become so popular with young people in their teens and twenties,” read another.

Among the assumptions that come up and go unchecked are that trauma survivors are the ones asking for trigger warnings to be broadly applied in the first place and that, whether or not they are, asking for consideration means that there's an imminent threat of a culture war-style takeover by a cabal of survivors who want to curtail our civil liberties or the exchange of ideas or the free expression of artists. (Honestly, it escaped my notice that we’re living in a world that slavishly caters to the needs of trauma survivors. If someone had told me, I would have made a point of enjoying it more!)

I’m also baffled by this assumption that trigger warnings are meant to prevent us from having to see or feel anything difficult--that the only way one responds to a trigger is by falling apart. Being triggered doesn't mean you fall apart or are overcome by stereotypically feminized hysterics. Trauma responses can include a huge range of reactions, including physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, and heart palpitations and emotional ones, like anxiety or numbness. Sometimes being triggered looks like getting really quiet and sitting through something until you can get somewhere safe to take care of yourself. Sometimes it looks like someone going on as though nothing has happened at all and then having a really terrible nightmare that night.

Likewise, I’m not sure why a trigger warning has to imply censoring someone or stopping something. A “warning” is just that, and if you know what to expect--that you’re about to see something upsetting--you can plan in advance how you'll handle it and how you'll get through it. And we often warn people when they are about to see things that might be disturbing, whether we know them to be trauma survivors or not.

For example, when I’ve taught or assisted U.S. history courses that have included content about the civil rights movement, we have always warned students before showing footage or photographs from the funeral of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old African American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. His mother Mamie’s decision to have an open casket at his funeral --there are no photos in that linked piece, by the way--was a watershed moment because the images of his battered body, broadcast around the world, woke some white people up to the visceral truth about racial violence. Those images are important to the story, and we teach with them, but we let students know that they’re about to see something disturbing.

No one would say that offering such a warning represents an effort to suppress or censor the material. No one would suggest that I’m babying my students or allowing them to turn away. So why do we assume that trauma survivors want to suppress difficult material or censor artistic expression?

How we talk about trauma survivors is what’s most troubling to me in all of this. I hear people expressing contempt for who they think survivors are: fragile, weirdly entitled, narcissistic, pathetic, weak. With outrage, people ask angry, accusatory rhetorical questions that communicate their views: Do trauma survivors expect "us" to make the world safe for them or protect them from anything scary? Why should "we" be responsible for the fact that they can't handle reality? Can't survivors deal with their feelings and move on with their lives? Are they really so weak that they'll fall apart if confronted with a difficult image or idea? This is what we think trauma survivors are like.

And it’s all so, so wrong. I don’t think anyone knows better than trauma survivors do that the world isn’t safe, that we can’t be truly protected from anything (except certain communicable diseases, via appropriate vaccinations). I don't know what other people think constitutes reality, but for me it's included burying both of my parents and repeatedly committing loved ones to terrifying psychiatric hospitals for their own safety. I’m pretty clear on what reality can look like.

We don't get triggered because we're weak; we get triggered because trauma responses are physiological. They're not imaginary or only psychosomatic, and they're not necessarily part of a lifetime condition. Lots of people around you are trauma survivors, but you may not know it because we're dealing with our feelings and, exactly as you say you want us to, moving on with our lives.

These conversations just don’t reflect reality. I'm left wondering why we as a culture seem so fearful of and so hateful toward survivors of trauma. Why do we assume trauma survivors are weak? Why do we blame them for being wounded--at all, ever, or at least for more than a few hours or weeks--by unspeakable, ugly events?

I suspect that it’s partly because we’ve coded trauma survivors--and the character traits we attach to our images of them--as feminized. We always have. What we now think of as PTSD has its modern roots in the work of 19th century French physician Jean Martin Charcot, who treated women on the "hystero-epilepsy" ward at Paris's Salpêtrière Hospital. Hysteria had long been considered a physiological disorder afflicting women and originating in the uterus. Charcot determined that hysteria was psychological, not physiological--but he still considered it a women's disease.

Though Charcot's findings on treating hysteria with hypnosis were discredited, his prominent students, including Sigmund Freud, brought forward some of his ideas about the psychology of women, and the association between women and trauma grew stronger over time. When, after World War I, returning British and European soldiers complained of insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks, which became known as "shell shock," the phenomenon suggested that men, too, could be affected by trauma. But shell shock was, above all, a disorder characterized by an assumed failure of masculinity and self-control. Men might be traumatized, but they weren't truly men.

This stigma has persisted. Scholar Joshua S. Goldstein has thoroughly documented the long history of framing traumatized combat vets as emasculated and weak. And though we’ve seen some growth in public attitudes toward trauma and PTSD in military combat veterans, less than half of soldiers with PTSD seek treatment, largely due to fear of stigma--including the fear of being seen as weak and feminized. Likewise, men who survive sexual abuse struggle to reach out for help because they don’t want to seem weak or have their sexuality called into question. Despite the work of feminist physicians and researchers like Judith Herman, whose Trauma and Recovery challenged stigma and advanced evidence-based treatment for PTSD, we still view even trauma itself through a profoundly patriarchal lens.

Our contempt for the trigger warning comes from--what? A fear that people--particularly women--might insist on being fully seen and recognized, even if it’s inconvenient? That we might have to reckon with the pain of others, especially the most incomprehensible varieties of suffering? That sometimes it takes a long time to get better, that sometimes we don’t? That we might have to acknowledge our shared responsibility for a world that is still so profoundly hostile toward women of all genders that, as Dylan Farrow’s recent revelations demonstrate, we categorically refuse to believe survivors?

It may or may not be practicable or advisable to provide trigger warnings in college classrooms. Honestly, I don’t care much either way. What I do care about is the way in which the subject seems to provide a convenient excuse to pathologize and shame survivors. The conversation about trigger warnings is, in every way, a conversation about trauma survivors, and, in a small way, a conversation about what part we each play in creating communities in which all of us can fully participate. If we’re going to have that conversation--and I think it’s an important one!--we need to do it without diminishing or lionizing trauma survivors. Pain, even and especially the pain of trauma, is neither permanently damaging or inherently ennobling. It’s just a part of life. As with most things, we deal with it individually and communally, whether we like it or not.

And you know something? I don’t think that how we as individual survivors manage our struggles every day is the problem here. Let’s stop acting like it is.