Earlier this year, I issued a trigger warning as part of a project I was involved with. It was important to those of us involved to issue the warning, and a unanimous decision, but it did lead to an interesting discussion of trigger warnings per se. Unfortunately, the topic seems to have been discussed rather one-sidedly, the assumption being that if you are at all critical of trigger warnings, you must be sexist and/or fascist. It’s one of those areas where multi-faceted discussions are very difficult to come by. Yet, they are extremely important in this case, because in some instances, trigger warnings bear a certain resemblance to censorship.
The idea of trigger warnings started on the internet somewhere between 2008 and 2010, as something very unrelated to the psychological/therapeutic context where the term originated. It was later popularized on North American campuses with psychological contexts of trauma and traumatization in mind.Trigger warnings then took hold in the U.K., and have since been transported to German universities.
Trigger warnings are warnings that teachers, speakers and artists in public spheres are supposed to issue if the content they are going to breach is problematic, i.e. if there is content that depicts traumatizing events which may trigger survivors of such events. This does make a lot of sense, of course, and is a practice I am generally in favour of. Psychologically speaking, however, triggers are far more multifaceted than that. It is difficult to predict what will act as a trigger. Everyday smells and sounds can be triggers, and predicting which sounds and smells will become triggers is impossible. Triggers lead to flashbacks, i.e. being caught in the memory of a certain event and being unable to escape that memory. That is not to say that depictions of violence against e.g. women might not be especially difficult for women who have experienced violence or that such depictions cannot be triggering – of course they can, and they force survivors to at least think about if not necessarily relive challenging experiences. If used to state that there will be scenes of violence that might be difficult to handle, trigger warnings make sense and are very necessary – even though some scholars would argue that having to issue a trigger warning is in itself a form of censorship.
But there is, in my opinion, a problem when trigger warnings go too far and whenever they make criticial discussion impossible. This is especially true for the humanities, where a large part of what students are supposed to achieve is learn how to think critically. People have begun using trigger warnings as justifactions to change the syllabus in the U.S. and the U.K., to leave out work deemed to be too “triggering”. These are works with aesthetic value, which often by means of how they are written condemn the violence in them, works like Night and Fog. And the trend has now reached German universities. Friends of mine and I believe that this is a very worrying trend, because once you tell teachers what they can or cannot teach, even as part of the student body, that feels really close to censorship. But how do you draw the line between what is necessary and what is spurious?
In my experience, trigger warnings are often demanded by people who do not suffer from PTSD when confronted with content that makes them feel uncomfortable. Feeling uncomfortable or being reminded of a bad time in your life as a result of seeing or reading something are not the same as being triggered in a psychological sense, because triggers, psychologically speaking, have to do with the subconscious: surpressed memories that you can’t stop from resurfacing rather than memories you may not want to experience, but can still control. More importantly, if you are triggered into a flashback, this means you are pulled back into the situation of the trauma – the mind plays tricks on you and forces you to relive aspects you keep deeply buried for good reason. Survivors of trauma are often unable to recount what happens during these flashbacks; they only remember the emotions associated with them. Using the word “trigger” lightly is like using the word “migraine” to encompass all manner of headaches. Headaches hurt and can be very distracting and uncomfortable, but migraines (especially those with an aura) are debilitating and definitely not the same thing as your regular headache. Yet, people associate headaches with migraines, and it’s a common misconception to assume that based on your experiences with headaches, a person with a migraine should be able to do what a person with a headache is able to do. Of course, this allegory has its flaws, but we could say that “trauma” and “triggers” are used just as lightly as “migraine”, with disregard for what those terms are actually supposed to encompass.
As for the overuse of trigger warnings in university contexts, I’d like to argue that the whole point of university is to be challenged, that is to say university is supposed to be a place where problems prevalent in society are discussed. Imagine for a moment that all aesthetic works with depictions of torture or depictions of violence were to be taken off the syllabus. They would then also no longer factor into classroom discussions – and there’s a strong argument to be made that these are issues that need to be addressed and talked about. Not talking about systemic racism and sexism in society is a real problem. Mind you, I do not mean pornographic depictions of violence, i.e. violence that is intended to induce some form of pleasure in the viewer. Context is key here, as it always is. Some might argue that it is enough to discuss these topics abstractly, without being confronted with them. But does that really combat systemic issues? Don’t we run into the problem of silencing voices that need to be heard? Is leaving out even allusions to violence in a film about war or the holocaust going to help society as a whole have the discussions that need to be had? To what extent should we be policing each other in how we address certain topics? And doesn’t making assumptions about certain types of art and literature being too extreme and therefore impermissible in teaching contexts make your alarm bells go off?
Agency is an interesting topic when it comes to this debate, as trigger warnings very much assume that the loudest individual should be at the forefront of any given discussion. Personal experience overshadows collective need, in the sense of ‘I feel uncomfortable with this, therefore everyone does, therefore this should no longer be taught.’ Of course, this is a dangerous logical fallacy, even bearing in mind that yes, feeling uncomfortable or overwhelmed with certain materials is a perfectly valid emotion, and yes, those emotions should be taken seriously.
At times, trigger warnings have very little to do with a desire to shelter those of us who are survivors of trauma and traumatic experiences, but more with the desire to control the workings at university, which, to be honest, do have some antiquated, hierarchical structures that can get pretty hegemonial. However, spokespeople of individuals and, indeed, entire groups of people who protest certain issues, even with the best of intentions, do not by default always land on the right side of history. Those who question the merits of controversial content, especially when it comes to teaching, are in danger of advocating in favor of censorship – which falls dangerously close to fascist tendencies and which some leftist academics have dubbed neoliberalist. In my opinion, this perfectly encapsulates the ironic focus on individuality instead of community in this debate – a debate which is supposed to be about empowering disenfranchised groups.
A very problematic issue in view of the trigger warning discussion is that it is often used to justify sexist and racist statements and actions by e.g. men’s rights activists who argue that trigger warnings are representative of “the problem with feminism” and that women are letting emotionality trump rationality. Again, I think trigger warnings are necessary, and these blanket statements are exactly where problems discussing the issue stem from. If those who oppose trigger warnings the loudest are men’s rights activists and populists, it becomes impossible for teaching staff to talk about the issue without being automatically associated with those groups. As a consequence, valid concerns are swept aside. However, recent blog posts and articles show that leftist and feminist groups themselves are beginning to challenge how trigger warnings are being used in university contexts.
To conclude, trigger warnings, when used to prevent people who have experienced trauma from having to relive those traumatic events, are absolutely, 100% necessary. When, however, trigger warnings are abused and create an atmosphere of censorship which ultimately leads to the disenfranchisement of the very groups they are designed to protect, then we need to discuss the contexts in which they are being used. Taking standardized literary works with acclaimed, aesthetic value off the syllabus is the first step into a stream-lined, non-controversial, elitist university system. And if that’s not a warning sign, I don’t know what is.
Image taken from Social Science Space: In Defense of the Trigger Warning