Why I Stopped Rolling My Eyes at Trigger Warnings


The perennially controversial blog convention of trigger warnings made it into the New York Times this week, thanks to a growing movement of college students calling for such warnings on graphic classroom materials. For the uninitiated, trigger warnings are a quick heads-up at the top of a post alerting readers to sensitive matters below, somewhat like the title card before Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. They were popularized in the feminist blogosphere, to warn participants of the self-designated safe spaces about stories involving rape, abuse, or self-harm that might induce flashbacks to their own past traumas. But they were soon applied to blog posts about racism, classism, heterosexism, cissexism, dyadism, and other lesser-known Tumblr-isms, at which point they became kind of a joke, and were eventually declared dead (at least in certain corners of the internet) two years ago. Their sudden appearance in academia has become fodder a new crop of critics: Salon charged trigger warnings with “dumbing down education” and The Guardian called them “one small step from book banning.

I kind of know where these critics are coming from, because I used to be one of them. I publicly joked that sappy songs required trigger warnings, and I privately complained that they were as infantilizing as spoiler alerts. But now that trigger warnings have gone mainstream, I find I’ve come full circle. Why should trigger warnings bother me? Like many of trigger warnings’ loudest opponents, I have noticed, I have no firsthand experience with rape or racial discrimination or cissexism. And a few words at the beginning of an article (or on a seminar syllabus) are no skin off my un-traumatized nose.

In fact, what now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged? In their distress, critics have entirely overlooked an important distinction: Oberlin students aren’t trying to get out of reading Mrs. Dalloway because they’re special, sensitive snowflakes, or even get it removed from syllabi. They just want a three-word note on the syllabus giving them a heads-up that it addresses suicide. If that’s all it takes for instructors to prevent the shock it could cause a student who has been suicidal, it is, to me, a no-brainer.

There’s some debate about the legitimacy of trigger warnings, since the triggers of post-traumatic-stress disorder are often so personal and idiosyncratic (a smell, a song, an elevated heart rate) that no one could effectively “warn” everyone. But when it comes to what’s helpful for, say, survivors of sexual assault, shouldn’t we defer to survivors of sexual assault? Activists at U.C. Santa Barbara would simply like to have known ahead of time that an assigned film contained a rape scene, a neutral disclaimer that impinges on neither the filmmaker’s freedom of speech nor the other students’ intellectual development. At worst, it’s a plot spoiler.

In a more mainstream context, the trigger-warning backlash feels like part of a larger reaction against the needs of marginalized groups — even when they’re perfectly easy to accommodate — simply because they are the minority. I started thinking of these people — who are loudly aggrieved by activists’ requests for gender-neutral bathrooms or non-sexist adjectives or a basic understanding of the meaning of cissexual — as The Piers Morgans around the time Morgan threw a multiday temper tantrum over transgender advocate and memoirist Janet Mock.

That episode shared the wacky power dynamics at play in the trigger-warning debate. Mock tweeted that she was displeased with CNN’s chyron “born a boy” (its Maury-ish sensationalism undermined her gender dysphoria), and some of her online followers piled on Morgan. It wasn’t the kind of screw-up that required a statement from the network, but it could have been a wake-up call to Morgan to be more careful with some guests. Instead, Morgan went on a defensive, two-day Twitter rant in which he called Mock “disgraceful” for turning the transgender community against him and accused her of being insufficiently grateful for his interest in transgender issues. In the case of Morgan and the anti-trigger-warning crowd, their reaction is out of scale with what’s at stake for them (a few nasty tweets, a spoiler on the syllabus), especially compared with what’s at stake for those complaining (rampant discrimination, a traumatic flashback).

This impact disparity seems even more glaring when you consider the parties involved in the latest trigger-warning debates: sexual assault victims, and the American universities who have widely failed to protect them. Against this backdrop, arguing that hand-holding trigger warnings are intolerably bothersome to me, the person who was not raped (and one liable to spoil endings all by herself by reading online plot summaries before class) feels Piers Morgan-y. Politics aside, it’s just not a good look. Which is not to say I know how useful or necessary trigger warnings would be across the board again, they’re not for me. But doing this small thing for the people asking for it seems like a good place to start.