Trigger Warnings: Strange and Controversial Creatures

Trigger Warning citations have become more and more frequent in our modern world. They seem to be claiming both college classrooms and online blogs as their habitat. While they have been around for quite a while, their population boom made headlines in 2004 when the student senate at the University of California-Santa Barbara passed a resolution to mandate a home for these creatures in the syllabi of their classes. Trigger warnings would be included when certain topics were gong to be discussed in classes, including but not limited to abuse, kidnapping, sexual assault, and suicide.

Oberlin College in Ohio expanded the definition of these creatures’ homes to include discussions about racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.

In all seriousness, the original purpose of Trigger Warnings was to prevent those with PTSD to have to relive events that reminded from of their trauma. It is very important to clarify that triggers in the classical definition are symptoms of PTSD. A trigger is not just feeling uncomfortable with a topic that reminds you of something bad, it is a visceral reaction to a stimulus that is linked to trauma.

This debate has even reached the cover of New York Times: I am here to add my voice to the debate, and let everyone know why there will be no trigger warnings on my blog.

My first and least well-cited point is that I cannot possibly warn you every time I’m going to talk about anything that can be categorized as a trigger. Not even considering violence-orientated topics, I would have to post a warning every time I wanted to talk about race, class, sexual orientation, or gender. If these are things that need Trigger Warnings, then there should be a Trigger Warning for stepping outside of your door, turning on the TV, and reading books.

With that out of the way, here are my more well-cited points as to why I am not going to post Trigger Warnings for issues of abuse, kidnapping, sexual assault, and suicide.

According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, while trauma is common, and 60% of men and 50% of women will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives, PTSD is less common, with only 7-8% of the population suffering from it at some point in their lives. Furthermore, in a study of 2,181 adults in southeastern Michigan, epidemiologists found that 89.6% of them had experienced a trauma yet only 9.2% of them had developed PTSD.   This speaks to the incredible resilience of our species. Many people recover from their trauma without ever developing PTSD.

So we now have an estimated 7%-9% of our population with PTSD. Why not cater to them with the Trigger Warnings?

Trigger Warnings are designed to help survivors avoid any reminders of their trauma.   That is completely counterproductive to treatment of PTSD. Treatment for trauma involves reliving the experiences and facing those things that cause the triggering moments. Find out more about that, specifically as it relates to rape, here!

Today’s culture allows many who have experienced trauma to label themselves as victims instead of survivors, something that is demeaning instead of empowering. They feel like they can never move past what happened to them. This culture of trigger warnings and avoidance is facilitating that victimhood

Mental health aside, there are additional structural reasons I am not in support of Trigger Warnings.

The internet is a place where you are literally a click away from anything, and I mean anything.  Almost by definition, the Internet is not a safe place to roam for those looking to avoid disturbing things. This has been true since the Internet began. To me, Trigger Warnings look like just another form of Internet censorship. It is indicating that people can talk about a subject, but they need to consider the people their words might harm. Making people feel guilty about talking about intense subjects is not a way to get people to speak out about the important issues facing our culture today.

I do not believe the college setting has any more reason to censor. As Robert A. Heinlein said, “The whole principle is wrong; it’s like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can’t eat steak”. While I do not want to call those who do not wish to face their triggers “babies”, I do want to emphasize that Trigger Warnings should not be applied to a society as a whole – especially when avoiding triggers is actually conducive to continued PTSD, not recovery from it.

College is all about challenging your personal beliefs. It is about taking people out of their comfort zone and making them uncomfortable. I am currently taking a class called History of the African Diaspora. We have had to watch, read about, and memorize some of the most disturbing things I have ever seen. We were not given the option to avoid this, and I think better of my teacher for it. Avoiding this material would have allowed some people to forget those events ever happened.   As a society we should never be allowed to forget our past, the crimes of our ancestors, or crimes of our fellow citizens. We will never move past all of the violence unless we understand it. We need to bring these violent and disturbing topics to the forefront of our conversations., and discuss them openly and loudly. Only then can we hope for change.

Avoiding disturbing things is not how we change the world. We change it by confronting these things head on, and promising to do our part to work towards a safer place for all.

So take this post as my declaration that the creatures called Trigger Warnings will find no home in my blog. I have banished them from my kingdom… queendom?… Dinosaurdom!!! I believe they do more harm then good. I am going to discuss controversial, intense, and violent topics. And if I don’t offend quite a few people along the way I will feel as if I haven’t covered the topic properly.


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