My approach to trigger warnings (this link is important) is a little non-standard, even if it results in me agreeing with those who scrupulously use them and their milder cousins the content notes. See, most times feminists and disability activists are using them for reasons of compassion and inclusivity, which are values they are supporting quite well through their actions. However, there are a lot of people who just cannot be reached via appeals to the greater or even small-scale interpersonal good. So I'll go over the compassion arguments, but then I'll give you my reasoning. If the first bit doesn't resonate with you, stick with me, yeah? Maybe you're just not like them. Maybe you're just like me, is all.
Why's this a conversation all of a sudden?
It is to everybody's great misfortune (except Lukianoff and Haidt, obviously) that their essay The Coddling of the American Mind in the Atlantic was the introduction to the matter for many casual readers and shallow thinkers. I don't normally go so far as to condemn entire readerships as shallow because those are strong words, but I hope I can justify them to your satisfaction.
The thesis of Lukianoff's and Haidt's article is that the export of trigger warnings from the internet to Real Academia has given students a way to hide from the kind of real intellectual and emotional challenges that make education and indeed maturity itself possible.
The alternative they present is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a thoroughly reputable therapeutic approach that entails providing patients with predictable, controlled, and moderated exposure to their trauma triggers in a controlled environment under the supervision of a licensed clinician who is familiar with their history and invested in their recovery. The most glaring failure of their proposed solution is that it cannot be achieved by omitting trigger warnings in classroom settings but only by expanding access to mental health services and allowing the priorities of those treatment programs to dictate levels and schedules of exposure to whatever extent can be reasonably managed.
In short, a professor who has chosen not to tell students they're going to be listening to a rape victim's 911 call is not actually gifting their students a free session of cognitive behavioral therapy; statistically they're more likely to be causing at least one student a neurologically uncontrollable response that will hinder the student's ability to engage with the material that could easily have been prevented by just... telling the students on the syllabus to brace themselves before attending that day.
So before we even get into questions of whether omitting trigger warnings is humane, it's worth asking what it achieves. The very first claim we've seen, that it toughens up those flimsy millenials, is starkly undermined by the very writers who most publicly made it. That's why I call the people who share this article around like it supports the omission of trigger warnings as a cure for millenial fragility casual readers and shallow thinkers, because that's Lukianoff's and Haidt's audience: people who can overlook the authors breaking their own thesis in half. It fails on such a fundamental level as a piece of persuasive writing that it's difficult to take seriously because, come on, look what they did to that poor thesis. They argue for eliminating trigger warnings because they make kids these days into big babies who care about racism and sexism and all kinds of nonsense and then advocate for a treatment method that essentially requires absolutely comprehensive use of trigger warnings across not only academia but all aspects of life. That poor poor thesis.
Even so, this terrible terrible essay started a conversation far better than it merited.
The conversation that's happening.
One of the biggest bogeymen trigger warnings get turned into is a form of bottom-up censorship, a tyranny of the broken and the oppressed, preventing their stories from being told. By and large, though, a warning is an extra line of content, not a subtraction. Certainly, the way that I use them, I write whatever I like. I add the warnings after I've written whatever I like, tailored to whatever came out. Linear time, being what it is, leaves them no way even to influence my writing.
So if the writing itself isn't being censored, can warnings cause censorship on the other end, on the reader's end? Here's my answer. The people who are likely to be personally traumatized by the content under discussion have already experienced it. Someone who can be triggered by rape already knows reality includes rape. So the warning has hidden nothing from them even should they entirely sidestep the content. We do get to a stickier point when we get to people who haven't been personally traumatized and just are sort of callous and crappy people who don't care what others go through and genuinely don't want to bother to learn.
I had to give some thought to that, and ended up finding an essay that distilled an answer down better than I could, so here you go.
Much of the panic about trigger warnings in classrooms also focuses on the fear that privileged students will avoid material that makes them uncomfortable. So if you put “TW: misogyny, sexual violence” on a syllabus next to an assignment, male students might think, “Ugh, I don’t want to read about that" and avoid it.Basically, your callous douchebags are already being callous douchebags, so please don't sacrifice your more vulnerable students on the altar of trying to de-douche the douches. They'll probably still be douches afterward.
But privileged students already avoid material that makes them uncomfortable; that may be one reason you see way too few white students in courses on African-American literature. Trigger warnings might make this slightly easier, but it doesn’t fix the larger, systemic problem of people choosing not to engage with material that challenges their worldview.
Further, avoiding trigger warnings for the sake of tricking privileged students into reading material on racism, sexism, and other unpleasant topics means potentially triggering underprivileged students by refusing to warn them that the upcoming reading assignment concerns traumatic things they may have experienced. People who lack privilege relative to others are constantly being asked to sacrifice their mental health and safety for the sake of educating those others, and this is just a continuation of that unjust pattern.
We talk about this a lot in an academic context, but frankly as much as professors worry about mandatory trigger warnings, they're not... really facing that? I mean, they're seriously not. The ones who're using them are typically doing so because they've come to the independent conclusion that it'll help their students better engage with the material without a lot of trauma from outside the classroom crashing down and interfering with their schoolwork.
Why trigger warnings are compassionate!
PTSD is bad. I mean, I hope I don't have to get into this, but PTSD is potentially life-shreddingly bad, and while not every potential trigger can be predicted and warned for (anybody who knows anything about PTSD knows this and adjusts for it, including advocates for trigger warnings), there are common ones.
Discussion of rape, child sexual abuse (often abbreviated to CSA), animal abuse, drug use, self-harm (these two can trigger relapses, which yikes bad), racism, misogyny, transantagonism, domestic violence, child death.... I mean, I could go on, but I don't actually have to, because I'm sure you get the idea. You don't have to warn for every imaginable thing like lizards and marshmallows and daisies and hair, so chill. You get a feel for it, and people with super edge triggers aren't as aggressive and uncharitable as you think they'll be. PTSD is bad, and frequently people who've got it feel so friggin unsafe that the fact that you'd even try makes a big difference. So just try.
I have to reiterate, being triggered isn't about being uncomfortable. It's not about being offended. Offense is crap, and I don't care about offense any more than anyone else with sense. It's about having the past entirely hijack your brain. There's a special sort of helplessness and terror people known to who've almost been killed by their parents, who've seen their friends die in war, who've had to kill an abusive spouse to save their children, there's a special sort of time travel hell that happens in your brain and if you have felt it you've felt it and if you haven't you haven't.
I've hated a few people in my life, but I have never allowed myself to deliberately trigger someone's PTSD, because that is inhumane on a level that I couldn't ever wash off my hands. I've hated people with glaring weak places I could have dug my thumbs into, people I could have hurled back into their pasts. I could have fed them into the furnace of their childhood suffering, passed them backward into the hands of every kind of menace you could imagine. I could have sent them through everything that had ever broken them and watched it break them all over again while I stood safe on the kitchen carpet, watching. And it's the most evil thing I can think of. It's beneath the person I have decided I'm to be.
So understand what it looks like to me when people argue that they are claiming some kind of moral high ground to do this to their students in classrooms in public. Understand what I see when I look inside those people and see the piece of me they're choosing to indulge. Understand what kind of person I know you have to be to not only take advantage of such an opportunity but to feel smugly superior about it. At least I'd have known what I was doing, but there's something particularly slimy about people who convince themselves that doing so makes them uniquely good. The layer of self-aggrandizement just... ech. It's so petty. I don't know how that element of it can bother me so much, but somehow it does.
Now that I've established I'm actually pretty awful...
There is a reason I started off with practical arguments, because I'm going to return to them here. The bare fact of the matter is that I generally find other people's emotional responses pretty tiresome. I'm aware that tolerating and even encouraging them is a pro-social behavior, and because I choose my actions based on building the sort of world I want to live in, I frequently choose not to act on my exhaustion or annoyance. It's there, though. I give people the support they deserve even when I am inwardly rolling my eyes that Feelings are happening. I do a fair imitation of a bleeding heart who feels everybody's feelings and has the pains when people are suffering but really.... I just... would prefer to live in a world where such support happens, because it is the best way to ensure that such suffering is handled humanely and responsibly and thereby minimized.
The realest reason I use trigger warnings (and their milder cousins the content notes)? I use them because people in the grip of PTSD are actually just about the least capable of rationality and careful critical engagement of any human being, because their brains have been hijacked and there is absolutely zero room for me to expect them to be anything but a neurological disaster. And, just... ugh.
Trigger warnings are the fence I put up around my writing that says, "If this content is going to give you Feelings Problems, then honestly just... just make different choices."
And the miracle of it is... it works!
And it works by giving people the tools to manage themselves! It works by placing all responsibility on the shoulders of people who need to learn to know and adjust for their own bugs, their own failure conditions, and lets me do whatever the hell I wanna do. I am telling people to take responsibility for their own shit in a way that actually makes it possible for them to do the thing I want them to do! This is great!
It sounds like such an elementary thing that I don't know how to break it down more without sounding really patronizing, but this is the real reason. I am not qualified to manage other people's mental illness or trauma recovery. I am so beyond not qualified. Nor am I particularly motivated most of the time to participate in that process. If what I want is for people to be responsible for their own recovery rather than spilling it all over me, I can make it more likely that happens, and this is great!
It's like I I was born into a world that was raining torrential failed trauma recovery and it was only when I reached adulthood that the internet handed me the raincoat and umbrella of Nope I Told You What This Was.
So to my fellow disinterested callous selfish jerks:
You don't owe me anything. Obviously! But in a world full of people spilling suffering everywhere, there are things we can do to actively make their recovery less our problem and more under their control. As Sarah Seltzer discusses trigger warnings, they allow the people around us to prepare for what they're about to engage with, prevent the brain-hijacking effects of PTSD, and remain more even and rational and capable. Totally aside from how empowering that is for them... doesn't that sound nice for us, too? It's an extra line of text, just a heads up, and it makes everybody else soooo much less exhausting.
You don't have to be my brand of selfish. But I hope you can at least see how trigger warnings fit into my brand of self-interest. By helping the people around me take control of their own trauma recovery, I am keeping with my general goal of helping edge the world closer and closer to one I find more comfortable for myself. You don't have to help me, though obviously I hope you will. Maybe at least you understand better.